App-driven food donation program to fill a Denver food desert
Updated: Mar 1
Note: Originally published in the December 2015 Washington Park Profile.
As any gardener knows, even vegetable beds laid with the most detailed planning can end up overproducing. One extra bush of squash or zucchini and you’re overwhelmed by abundance.
Interestingly, according to 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, 31 percent of Americans’ restaurant and consumer food goes to waste annually. Other sources say the percentage is higher — a 2012 Washington Post article put the figure at 40 percent, with a price tag of $165 billion.
The sad irony of this reality is that 23.5 million Americans live in what are called food deserts, which, again according to the USDA, are defined as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.” Even worse, over half of those living in these conditions are categorized as low income. For urban areas the distance one must live from a supermarket or grocery store is one mile; for rural areas the distance is ten times greater.
Denver’s north side — the 80205 zip code from Five Points east to Colorado Boulevard and north to Interstate 70 — can be categorized as a food desert in that there are very few full-service grocers available to meet the needs of the population living there. Enter new initiative Fresh Food Connect, a partnership between Denver Food Rescue, Denver Urban Gardens and Groundwork Denver, which aims to solve this problem, one backyard gardener at a time.
Denver Food Rescue’s bikes and their 500-pound-capacity trailers will be the workhorses powering the extra vegetable pickup service that is the new Fresh Food Connect initiative. Photo courtesy of Denver Food Rescue.
According to the Fresh Food Connect website, “backyard or community gardeners can sign up to donate extra fruits and vegetables. Each week, you will receive an email or text asking if you have produce from your garden to donate. If you do, you will put it on your front porch on your designated date, and our youth employees will pick it up. The veggies will either be donated or sold very affordably to food insecure families.”
Turner Wyatt, executive director of Denver Food Rescue which is literally providing the bike wheels that drive this endeavor, says that the partner nonprofits will use their internal connections to determine who will receive donated vegetables. “But,” he says, “if people do have ideas for places where food could be donated, I would encourage them to reach out and suggest those places, because we’re always looking for partners.” Additionally, the youth employees that make the pickups are from less-fortunate backgrounds, adding another positive to the equation.
The idea for Fresh Food Connect belongs to Wendy Hawthorne, the executive director of Groundwork Denver. Hawthorne approached Denver Urban Gardens and Denver Food Rescue to see if they would like to partner on the project and apply for a Rose Community Foundation grant. The grant came through, and the plan is becoming a reality.
“If it’s really successful then we’ll expand it, making it bigger and bigger until it can serve every neighborhood in Denver where it makes sense to operate. If you know of anyone living in 80205 with a garden, make sure they know about Fresh Food Connect so that it goes really well and we’re able to expand to other neighborhoods like Wash Park.”
The three non-profits are located in the 80205 zip code, and, according to Wyatt, working close to home base made perfect sense: “80205 is a neighborhood with less-than-ideal retail food options,” he says, adding “for better or worse it’s one of the fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the state of Colorado.” Wyatt sees this service as one capable of building community in that it can help take pressure off of less-fortunate residents and maybe allow them to stay in the neighborhood.
The program is driven by a web app developed by Code for Denver, a tech-savvy volunteer group that, according to their website (codefordenver.org), is “passionate about leveraging the power of technology to benefit the people of our Denver community.” The first-stage Code for Denver web platform let Fresh Food Connect launch a five-week pilot which began in September and which was very successful. “We tested the routes, the bike trailers used to pick up the food, the app,” Wyatt says. “We kept the pilot to no more than 12 households in any given week — we kept it small so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed. But we received tons of positive feedback and interest from households either participating or wanting to participate.”
Wyatt adds that the partnership is still assessing data and collecting responses. “In a few weeks,” he says, “we will be taking that to app developers and using a big chunk of that Rose Community Foundation grant to integrate the feedback into a bigger, better, more robust app that has everything we need and that’s going to work perfectly.”
The plan is to build the app through the winter, test the program again in April and launch in May. “If it’s really successful then we’ll expand it, making it bigger and bigger until it can serve every neighborhood in Denver where it makes sense to operate,” Wyatt says. “If you know of anyone living in 80205 with a garden, make sure they know about Fresh Food Connect so that it goes really well and we’re able to expand to other neighborhoods like Wash Park.”
All the nonprofits in the partnership are potential Colorado Gives Day recipients, so though you might not be able to donate vegetables at present (given location or the current snowy season), financial support is just as important. Updates on this project will continue as the official launch nears.
For more alarming food waste statistics, search the Washington Post website for “How the U.S. Manages to Waste $165 Billion in Food Each Year.” For information on Fresh Food Connect visit freshfoodconnect.org. The partner organization websites are: denverfoodrescue.org, groundworkcolorado.org and dug.org.