Local coalition rallying growers, securing food for food pantries

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    By John Finefrock
    Staff Writer

    The Archuleta County Food Equity Coalition has been working to increase the local food supply since 2017.

    Pauline Benetti, who is involved with the growers’ group associated with the coalition, explained in an interview last week that one of the first big projects the group took on was creating a food assessment of Archuleta County.

    “By [food assessment] I’m not talking about what’s in the grocery stores. [This is] a food assessment of the local system. What can we as a community produce in terms of food?”

    Benetti noted the Pagosa area has some obvious problems related to growing food: a short growing season, poor-quality soils, access to water and limited numbers of people growing food.

    Michelle Huck, treasurer for the food coalition, explained how the food coalition is working with local growers.

    “What happens is a lot of times they have extra [food], they often times just give it away or sometimes it goes to waste,” she said. “So we’re working with them to donate to the local food pantries to get those fresh-grown foods available.”

    Benetti explained around the same time as the food assessment project was getting started, the coalition started to “coalesce” around different groups in the community, including the six different food pantries located throughout the county.

    Benetti indicated that with the coalition’s help, the TARA Community Center in Arboles became a food pantry and the coalition was able to bolster other food programs in the county.

    “We were able to fund some CSAs , community-supported agriculture, so we were able to support some CSAs that would deliver food to the food pantries,” she said.

    The coalition has rallied local food growers into a more unified group.

    “We have maybe two or three, three or four small commercial outfits around here, the rest of the growing is done in people’s backyards and people’s greenhouses,” Benetti said. “We created a network around that, an effort to increase the amount of food that was being grown.”

    Food bank stress in the time of COVID

    Benetti noted the food coalition was “happily” involved in the food assessment project when the COVID-19 pandemic changed both the lives and the food needs of many members of the local community.

    “And then March happened. And we were asked to engage instead in an emergency food supply effort because the clientele for the food pantries just simply doubled, it was up to 300 boxes a week,” she said, adding, “So then that’s when we started looking for funding and the community was very generous, community organizations were very generous, and we were actually able to purchase some CSAs to increase the amount of local fresh food because until then, the food pantries had been supplying nonperishables.”

    Huck explained the coalition had to get creative in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in regard to securing food for the food pantries.

    “Another thing we’ve been able to do is sustain a working relationship with the food bank over in Durango and we’ve been able to purchase some pallets of food,” she said. “Because at the beginning of the virus, we were having trouble finding food to purchase because it was flying off the shelves.”

    The coalition also helped coordinate with the local grocery stores in Pagosa Springs to donate vegetables to the food pantries, though Benetti noted, it isn’t fresh produce and the coalition’s larger goal is to increase the supply of fresh vegetables grown locally.

    “We’re still doing that right now,” she said. “We’re working on increasing that food supply.”

    Benetti explained ongoing goals of the group are:

    • Create an equitable community-based food system.

    • Expand the coalition’s cooking class offerings, though she noted this will be easier when the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

    • Build a “community hub” that could be used for food storage and could include a commercial kitchen.

    • Provide incentives for local growers to grow more food.

    • Build more community gardens.

    • Create a “mobile work crew” to maintain community gardens.

    • Expand the coalition’s youth group.

    • Develop a USDA-certified meat processing plant in Archuleta County, as there are currently none.

    • Increase the locally grown food supply in the county.

    Benetti highlighted that one of the major accomplishments of the food coalition was bringing all the food pantries together “so they could share and receive more food.”

    She said the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the need to increase the locally grown food supply as it “proved to us that without [a local food supply] we are subject to the whims of what’s going on in the rest of the country.”

    Matt Dodson, director of the Archuleta County Department of Human Services, said the food coalition is “a vital resource in our community” and that by bolstering food bank offerings locally, families have further support in putting food on the table.

    More information about the food coalition, including how to make a donation, can be found atfoodcoalition4archuleta.org.