Since it formed in October 2017, the Good Food Collective has grown in its mission to reinstate an intact regional food system.
“We see food, and especially local food, as this way to provide economic development for the region, meaningful workforce development, certainly some environmental stewardship and also ... just feeding people,” said Rachel Landis, director of the GFC. “That sustains everything from culture to health and well-being to kind of really bringing a social justice aspect into it.”
The organization was created when people from a number of organizations, including the CSU Extension Office, Local First and Bear Smart Durango, realized that implementing an overarching structure to coordinate with one another would benefit everyone, she said. Having hyper-local groups in Durango, Cortez and Bayfield did not necessarily match the way that food actually flows throughout the region.
The first tangible project the collective tackled was fruit gleaning – meant to address the estimated 23 million pounds of fruit falling yearly off trees in La Plata and Montezuma counties, she said. Programs were already in place on a local level, but adding a point person and matchmaking service made it scalable to the entire region.
Over time, the Good Food Collective has branched out into three major focus initiatives: Regional convening, coordination and support; agricultural support; and food security.
Regional convening and support“We have to start working like a region and talking to each other and doing all this grassroots work to build trust and relationships,” Landis said.
This breaks down barriers and territorialism that causes people to think only within their own microcosms, she said.
Agricultural supportLandis said that the reason so much food is wasted in Southwest Colorado is twofold: There’s no end market and there’s no labor force. And this expands far beyond just fruit.
To address this, the Good Food Collective has a market development program, which analyzes whether there are secondary or B-grade products out there that area farmers grow for which they don’t have end markets. This is true more for young growers than established ones who have learned to grow exactly what they can sell, she said. The GFC often redirects funny-looking food to school programs.
The GFC also looks into ways to increase the marketability of local produce.
One way the organization has been doing this is by developing a dried fruit line with Durango Artisan Foods using gleaned fruit.
“If there’s any way we can provide fresh, healthy foods that are not perishable, that are already prepared and especially that are of interest to kids, that’s like a home run,” Landis said.
Another big problem the GFC seeks to address is the workforce. Farmers believe the biggest barrier to their ability to produce more food is labor.
“They just need more hands on deck,” she said.
Most local farms are not large enough to support a visa program with migrant farm labor and most don’t need or can’t afford to support staff year-round, she said.
To address this, The Good Food Collective is partnering with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and other groups from the Front Range to explore a mobile farm workforce concept.
If an on-demand skilled labor force is sustainable, it would greatly help the region’s farmers.
“It lets you be the farmer and not deal with all the HR and also you don’t have to be burdened with a workforce all the time,” Landis said.
Food securityThe GFC’s gleaning program is going strong – since last year, it has pulled in 112,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables that were distributed back into the community, she said. This year, the program expanded into Montezuma County and started to work in the Pine River Valley.
Parts of the gleaning program are do-it-yourself – people can list their own trees online through the GFC’s website for others to come glean. This also reduces the likelihood a bear will show up instead.
Other parts require top-down organization, which is why the group brought in an Americorps volunteer, Leah Smith, to coordinate things.
Smith works out of the Montezuma Food Coalition’s Sharehouse, a warehouse in downtown Cortez set up to distribute food to low-income and food-insecure residents, said project manager Laurie Hall.
“She and I work together a lot on identifying groups in the community that need food, also sourcing food from a variety of goods, whether it’s backyard gardeners or full-scale production farms,” Hall said.
Simply having a volunteer to staff the Sharehouse parttime, answering questions and receiving food has been beneficial, she said.
The GFC will use eight other Americorps volunteers that it has through most of October on projects that increase food security, such as distributing food to trailer parks and elder centers.
In Durango, the GFC has partnered with Garden Project of Southwest Colorado, which works with school, community and food security gardens and runs food security programming for Durango residents.
The project distributes food that it gets from the Good Food Collective in several ways, said Brooke Frazer, the Manna Garden and Food Security program manager. One is through a weekly, low-cost produce-share program that currently distributes two 36 different families. Another is through the Manna Market free produce stand the project has set up in partnership with Manna soup kitchen.
“Because many food-insecure families rely on calorie-dense foods, one of our goals is to provide nutrient-dense foods to improve people’s health – especially if they can’t afford health insurance, or they aren’t able to really have the option of choosing healthy foods at the grocery store or the soup kitchen,” Frazer said.
This weekend, the Good Food Collective and Fenceline Cider will host the 11th annual Apple Days Festival at Buckley Park. Mancos’ Fenceline, other local cideries and the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project are working to restore the apple economy the region used to have, Landis said.
Of the fruit GFC collected last year, Fenceline used about 100,000 pounds of it, and attendees will be able to enjoy some of it through a apple juice and cider tasting, she said. The event will also feature apple pressing, an apple pie-eating contest and live music.