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A food desert, as defined by the USDA, is an area where a substantial number of residents lack access to a supermarket or grocery store. The difficulty in obtaining affordable fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats can lead to poor diets and conditions such as obesity or diabetes. Research shows that food deserts occur more in low-income areas of cities, but one group of students is working to change that statistic with a fresh approach.


The North Park Hill neighborhood in Denver is pretty green with trees, lots of lawns, and even a golf course. But the lush landscape belies the fact that this part of town is actually a desert. Not because it lacks water, but because it lacks another life-sustaining resource—food.

It's what public health officials call a "food desert"—areas where healthy, nutritious, and affordable food is hard to come by. That is except on this Saturday where at the corner of 26th and Kearney streets, a bounty of gorgeous produce is on sale. And the price? It’s whatever you can pay.

GreenLeafCrew Sitting under the shade of a pine tree on the campus of the old Smiley Middle School, Taylor is bundling up an order for Tom, who lives a few blocks away. But Taylor is not just collecting payments. She and her friends grew this food and proudly describes today's harvest to others waiting in line—offerings like basil, beets, baby carrots, chard, chives, cilantro, garlic, peppers, thyme, and zucchini.

Taylor is a crew member of the nonprofit GreenLeaf that runs year-round programs for youth to learn all aspects of running an urban farm like this one. The "crew" is made up of students from different high schools in Denver, as well as two young women already in college. GreenLeaf's goal is to grow healthy organic food at affordable prices.

Many of the GreenLeaf youth know firsthand what it means to live in an area without access to healthy food options. According to the organization's website, produce prices in inner-city supermarkets have been found to be higher than those in suburban areas, and that can often put healthy food out of reach for local residents. So at this farm stand, customers are asked to pay a modest fee, or whatever they can afford. No matter what they earn today, this program will pay dividends for the crew members that will last a lifetime.

SmileyFarm Maya McDowell, the development and community engagement coordinator for the organization, says she thinks apart from the obvious technical knowledge of learning how to grow your own food, the crew learns the importance of eating healthy, the importance of urban farms, and a lot about food justice.

She says probably one of the most important things crew members gain is leadership skill. They’re in charge. Not only do they do all the hiring of new team members, but they also plan, budget, and operate the farm—gaining life skills that will serve them well as they go on to college and careers. The youth do extensive market research to see what crops are selling for so they can keep prices low. The ultimate goal is to provide fresh produce to those who might not have access to it.

Since the program is year-round, in the winter crew members evaluate the last season to assess what they can do differently by researching crops and figuring out how to make the farm better the next season. That means ideas like growing nasturtium at the end of vegetable beds because it draws pests to its flowers and away from their crops. At GreenLeaf they use organic and natural methods to avoid using pesticides.

The students also learn which crops grow well together and draw on Native American methods of grouping plants, such as the "Three Sisters Blend," where corn, beans, and squash are grown together. The three plants act as a complete nutrient cycle in the soil, and by planting them together the beans will grow up the corn stalks, eliminating the need for a trellis.

As we walk with Maya through the rows of raised beds near the stand, she tells us that the farm is not only teaching how to grow, or what to grow, it’s also teaching sustainability. The farm is strictly organic and beds are watered by drip irrigation, saving enormous amounts of water. And they're also learning something subtle and important: the taste of healthy food. Once you’ve bitten into a fresh tomato plucked from the vine, or fresh raspberries, it's hard to go back to eating processed food. Research shows that developing a taste preference for nutritious food at an early age can ingrain good habits that last a lifetime—and reduce the likelihood of conditions like obesity, diabetes, or cardiovascular illness that result from a diet low in fruits and vegetables and high in processed and fast foods.

According to the USDA, even though things are improving, with grocery chains moving into food deserts, people are not always making wise food choices. For these kids, learning about vegetables they’ve never tried before or just taking pride in having grown a squash or garlic themselves is empowering and life changing.

Studies show that good health often comes down to knowledge about nutritious food choices, and these kids just got a bite of the apple—an apple we might add—that they grew themselves. 💧


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GreenLeaf was founded in 2008 by Leah Bry, whose community organizing experience led her to explore the powerful intersection of youth leadership and food justice. GreenLeaf offers seamless year-round programming for a diverse crew of youth from all across Denver, who earn a fair wage working five hours per week during our School Year Program and twenty hours per week during our Summer Program. The work is divided into three main areas: 1) Agricultural Operations: deciding what to grow, learning how best to care for it, and teaching community members and volunteers about our farm operations; 2) Educational Operations: developing curriculum tools to teach peers and communities about food, nutrition, growing food, and eating local; and 3) GreenLeaf2Go: neighborhood canvassing, marketing, and distribution operations, including our 9-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and our on-site Farm Stand. Learn more.

"Recent Evidence on the Effects of Food Store Access on Food Choice and Diet Quality"

A report from the U.S. Department of Agricultural Economic Research Service analyzed food store access and food choice. One key finding: Household and neighborhood resources, education, and taste preferences may be more important determinants of food choice than store proximity. Learn more.


Masthead photo: Jamie Sudler

Published: August 4, 2017
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