By Roberto Meza, CEO of East Denver Food Hub
As a small farmer in Colorado, I'm so thrilled the voters supported the Healthy School Meals for All bill. It means schools will be able to source local ingredients from local farmers like us. It will also help strengthen Colorado's economy and our students' health.
This bill was personal for me. As a farmer, it hits at the heart of one of the biggest issues I'm trying to solve. How can small scale farmers provide food in an accessible way? How can we do it in a way that people can afford without jeopardizing our own viability?
It is difficult for small farmers to compete with some of the larger agriculture corporations. Yet we know that we're providing the values we need to transform our food systems. We want to provide food that has a net benefit to people, to the planet, to animals. We also want to uplift equity and economic justice in our food system. It means thinking about food in a different way beyond price. And It means a lot that voters supported that.
The bill was the brainchild of Denver-based nonprofit, Hunger Free Colorado. Earlier, they worked on a bill to fund food pantries to buy Colorado-grown products in the Food Pantry Assistance Grant. Regional food coordinators like me were contracted to connect farmers to those food pantries. We created a value chain that orients the food supply chain around values such as equity, dignity, and food justice. It addresses the viability of local farmers and food insecurity at the same time. Throughout the COVID pandemic, that bill helped many farmers keep operating. Then this year, I played a key role informing the language on the Healthy School Meals for All ballot initiative.
Students deserve Internet access and books and water. It's about time we put healthy food in the same category. We also know that the public food dollar can circulate more times in local Colorado economies. It shouldn't disappear into corporate coffers.
We're talking about a radical paradigm shift in our food and farming ecosystem. Access to fresh healthy food is a basic human right. Now, we can look at farmers as stewards offering a public service. We're not just a farm enterprise operation. It's what we need if we're ever going to solve bigger issues. I mean things like climate change, inflation, and the spike in food insecurity, not to mention supply issues. This bill is an innovative solution that helps us mitigate hunger within a highly precarious US economy.
Aside from being a farmer, I also connect farms to community markets as cofounder of the East Denver Food Hub, an organization that addresses food resilience by offering the services of aggregation and distribution of local food. We began by focusing on building procurement contracts with community organizations such as food pantries and with anchor institutions such as hospitals and schools. A big moment was when we contracted with 29 schools to supply microgreens. For the schools, it was a small contract, almost an afterthought. For us, it made a huge difference in our bottom line. We realized the possible impact we could have on local farmers if school districts could do more. For all 29 schools, it came to about $1,800 a week. But a contract worth close to $100,000 a year can transform the life of local farmers as well as feed our students.
The bottom line is that as farmers, we see the impact of a food system that doesn't value land, people, or animals. We see the impact of a food system that doesn't value community. We see it expressed in climate change. Our orchards are dying off because of erratic temperature shifts. We're seeing the disappearance of arable land. Droughts and fires pose huge risks to agricultural producers here. These are the unintended consequences of an industrialized food system. Now we're coming to terms with those consequences.
We don't have a lot of time. We need to shift how the food system works. Future generations are going to inherit the impact of our decisions right now. And I definitely don't want to wake up one day and have those generations hold me accountable.
Let's do our work now to shift power. Let's shift the trends and the decisions and the food system. We need to create innovative solutions that can have a huge benefit now and in the long run. Initiatives such as Healthy Meals for All are one step forward in the right direction.
The measure in Colorado leads the way for the rest of the country. Networks of other groups in the National Farm to School Network are working on it. And I'd encourage others across the country to follow suit.
—Roberto Meza is a first-generation farmer, artist, and local food advocate. Originally from Mexico, Roberto is the Cofounder of Emerald Gardens, a year-round greenhouse farm in Bennett, CO addressing land access and climate resilience in agriculture, and CEO of East Denver Food Hub, a local food distributor based in Denver. His work lies at the intersection of policy, regenerative food systems, and environmental stewardship. He is President of the Board of the National Young Farmers Coalition, and a board member of Zero Food Print. He is a recent Governor-appointed member of the Colorado Agricultural Commission, and served on the White House Food Task Force.