Chew on this

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Here’s some food for thought during this season of plenty: As you struggle through the malaise that often lingers for days following a massive Thanksgiving dinner, thousands of residents of the Pikes Peak region are hungry. Even as the leftovers start to get funky in the back of the fridge, people in huge swaths of the city don’t have easy access to fresh, healthy food.

That’s not hyperbole, either. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, about a third of the city qualifies as a food desert. That means residents in urban areas don’t have access to a supermarket within 1 mile of their homes. In more rural locations, like northern Fremont and unincorporated eastern El Paso counties, residents have to drive more than 10 miles to purchase fresh, healthy food.

The USDA bases its research on U.S. Census tracts, and most recently updated its food desert map in October.

In Colorado Springs, the largest food desert starts around the Colorado College campus, stretching south from East Boulder Street into the city of Fountain. Stratmoor Hills in the Southeast, chunks of Fort Carson and Peterson Air Force Base, and the Springs municipal airport area all fall into this fresh-food wasteland. Similar voids have been mapped in Cimarron Hills on the city’s Eastside and around Palmer Park.

There are, of course, pockets of access within the void, but the fact that such a disparity still exists in the city is alarming. Especially when you consider that, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s 2019 Colorado Agricultural Statistics report, released in October, some 31.8 million acres of the state’s land are used for crop production or livestock ranching. Agriculture is a $7.5 billion industry in the Centennial State — last year ranchers and farmers here exported $1.7 billion worth of product — split 55/45 between livestock and crops.

And yet as Zac Chapman, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Springs Food Rescue, told the Colorado Springs Business Journal, “All the surveys we’ve received show that, time and time again, the most important foods for families who are food insecure are fresh fruits and vegetables, and meats and [dairy].

“I think there is this misconception that folks don’t know how to eat well, when often it’s really wrapped up into wider structural issues — such as, if I’m working three jobs and I’m a single mother and have five children, I’m probably not going to have the time to access healthy, fresh food.”

It’s a sad irony that some of Colorado’s richest agricultural lands — Pueblo County’s Arkansas River Valley, the eastern plains, the San Luis Valley and the Lower Arkansas River Valley of Rocky Ford and points east — are so close and yet so much of the population struggles to find the healthful ingredients they need to not just survive, but to thrive.

But there is a way that Colorado Springs could cross the culinary divide, and become a trendsetter in the Mountain West in the process. The small rural town of Baldwin, Florida, earned headlines recently for seizing control of its own food desert and opening a city-owned grocery store. No, it’s not socialism, it’s a solution.

Surely the city could build on this model to ensure all of its citizens have access to fresher food than, say, a super-value meal from the drive-thru or dinner à la 7-Eleven. Or, absent caring that much, at least create fiscal incentives for grocery stores to open in areas that are clearly underserved.

Perhaps our legislators could find state funding (maybe tapping into some of the revenue from that $7.5 billion ag industry) to incentivize local growers to sell their products locally and in areas with limited access.

The simple fact is that a healthy food supply means a healthier population… and fewer expensive health problems. High-quality, fresh, healthful food isn’t a luxury to be reserved for just the wealthy or those who buy homes in new neighborhoods. It’s a necessity for all to thrive.
Chew on that.