More locally harvested produce could make it onto plates across La Plata County next fall through a new food hub.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently granted the Durango Regional Food Recovery Hub about $355,000 for a full-time coordinator, equipment rental and space in a Durango High School’s receiving center, according a news release.
The three-year grant will focus on supplying more produce to low-income residents, opening up new food-focused business opportunities and reducing conflicts with bears.
The long-term vision is to sell some of the gleaned food to support the distribution of food to low-income residents, Fort Lewis College Environmental Center Coordinator Rachel Landis said. Food sales are meant to open up new markets for producers, not take away from existing businesses, and are likely to start in year two or three of the grant, she said.
Several nonprofits collaborated on the proposal, and a steering committee will oversee its development and the coordinator, Landis said.
The hub plans to start in Durango and La Plata County, before expanding into Montezuma County, Local First Managing Director Monique DiGiorgio said.
The USDA identified Durango as a priority for funding because of its sizable food-insecure population, she said.
“A lot of families only have access to highly processed, high-calorie foods, which is not the healthiest option for them,” said Sandhya Tillotson, executive director of The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado, a nonprofit that will work with the hub.
The project builds on past fruit and vegetable gleaning work by the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College, Bear Smart Durango, Colorado State University’s Extension Office, the Garden Project of Southwest Colorado, and Healthy Community Food Systems, the news release said.
Bear Smart Durango received a $10,000 grant from the Payroll Department earlier this year that will support the new coordinator as well.
Local First, Durango 9-R School District, Cooking Matters, and the American Independent Business Alliance are new organizations that plan to work with the hub.
“The first step is really increasing capacity of the collaborative,” DiGiorgio said.
The new coordinator is expected to start this winter and recruit producers while working on platforms to connect producers and consumers, such as an app and a website with inventory lists, among other details of the expansion, DiGiorgio said.
As part of the expansion, the food hub will start using the walk-in refrigerator and other facilities at Durango High School, where food will be stored and possibly processed to extend its shelf life, DiGiorgio said.
The high school is willing to provide infrastructure space in the summer when space is available, said Krista Garand, coordinator of student nutrition for 9-R.
The grant will also cover the cost of leasing a refrigerated truck.
The existing food distribution centers for low-income families would remain in place, including Manna Market, which offers produce to low-income families in the summer, she said.
“Any successful project should build on ... what we’re doing right now,” she said.
The new coordinator may be in charge of raising an additional $50,000 to hire students through the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College, DiGiorgio said.
At the height of harvest, students will be able to lead teams of volunteers and work as a rapid-response team to harvest produce right away, Landis said. Landis has often found volunteers can’t beat the bears to fruit.
Students can also help the coordinator with outreach and education.
The gleaning project will be built into the curriculum of the environmental center, and students will research how much food is lost on area farms to help inform the gleaning program, she said.
Gleaning will remove food sources that attract bears, which is possible even when natural foods sources are plentiful.
“Last year was a fantastic natural food year for bears and the most incidents we’ve had of bears raiding domestic fruit and subsequent property damage,” said Bear Smart Executive Director Bryan Peterson.