mountain roots

From Grassroots to Mountaintops : Localized Food Systems Create Solutions | By Laura Mills

Last Updated: December 5, 2023By

Mountain Roots is a nonprofit food system initiative driven by the community of the Gunnison Valley and spearheaded by executive director Holly Conn. Conn moved to Gunnison Valley back in 2010 to raise her young daughters in a mountainous landscape. At the same time, the K-12 school in Crested Butte had just undergone expansion and was leaning towards the community on how to redesign the school lunch program. Conn, with a background as a personal chef and a love of her new home, ran with the opportunity.

This was the birth of Mountain Roots’ original Farm to School program. The grassroots team pushed through Colorado’s short growing seasons to produce 600-plus pounds of food from a 2,100-square-foot plot in the first year. This food was spread across the county to various food pantries, schools and as trade for volunteer work.

THE START

After a successful four years of building the foundation for food security in the Gunnison Valley, in 2014, Mountain Roots implemented a fully comprehensive community assessment to gain information on the needs of the community and how to best strategize their efforts. Two years later, Mountain Roots launched a multi-farm CSA that has completely taken off and now provides fresh local goods to over 140 households. This system not only helped farmers sell their produce and improve access to healthy food in the community, but it also kept $95,000 in the local economy. In the years following, Mountain Roots established multiple fully-functioning farms throughout Southwestern Colorado to further educate the community on regenerative farming practices and production, while simultaneously including biodiversity.

THE CURRENT FOCUS

Mountain Roots has five areas of focus: education and culture, food protection, food security, food economy and policy. These five pillars are woven into everything that Mountain Roots touches.

When discussing what Mountain Roots is focusing on right now, Conn simply explains, “We are a food systems initiative. By design, when you work as a system, you are working on multiple pieces at the same time, because everything intersects.” At any given time, the Mountain Roots team has their hands in educating future generations, running their community farms, moving excess produce around the state where it is needed and pushing forward on future goals.

Mountain Roots, in unison with Gunnison County, has been focusing on understanding the economic position of the community post-pandemic. Gunnison County implemented a comprehensive study and, from that, were able to identify a substantial group referred to as the “missing middle.” This group is just above the poverty line but below the Self Sufficiency Standard.

For a little background, the Self Sufficiency Standard (SSS) pinpoints the income needed for working families to meet basic human needs at the lowest level, depending on geographic location. These families that meet the SSS are not upper-class families, but rather those that can afford both utilities and groceries each month.

Conn explains that, since the pandemic, the pocket of the “missing middle” has grown to represent about 30% of the population in Gunnison County. When this information came out, Conn and the Mountain Roots team got to work on formulating ways to assist these families in making ends meet.

mountain roots

Photos courtesy of Mountain Roots.

“We now have 110 families that are being delivered fresh produce each week to not only help with their food budgets but to help with their health,” Conn shares. “Food is the basic need; it’s where you start. If you don’t have good health and you don’t have good food, it’s very hard to move up the ladder on all the other factors and work your way out of a poverty.”

Conn continues to explain the importance in localizing our food systems to fulfill the needs of our community from within. If we are able to sustain ourselves, even partially, with the local food produced in our areas, the positive impact on the economy, environment and well-being of the places we call home grows exponentially.

WHAT’S NEXT

Around this time next year, the Gunnison Food Hub will be complete, giving access to four commercial kitchens for food-focused small business development, a CSA pick-up location, packing and sanitization stations for family-owned farms and, eventually, an egg processing room. This 2,500-square-foot facility will further the nonprofit’s efforts towards regional connectivity across the food system.

As of right now, the closest food hub to Gunnison is 110 miles away, making relocation of quality produce to areas of need a lot more difficult. With more drop-off locations throughout the state fully equipped with dry storage, freezers and refrigeration, fresh food can be cycled around the region to decrease food waste and to fulfill the needs of our communities.

“Currently, in order for produce to move around the state, our trucks are meeting on the highway truck-to-truck and making transfers in real time, which is really not sustainable,” Conn says. “We did a regional feasibility study from 2020-2022, and it emerged that we need to solve the transportation issue, and we need to have facilities in key locations.”

The four commercial kitchens in the facility give local self-starters access to the tools needed to finally launch their hot sauce company, take their wedding cake business to the next level or to prepare food goods to sell at farmers markets.

These industrial kitchens will not only connect small business owners with the resources they need but will connect farmers with small business owners who want to buy their excess product. This allows farmers to sell their “seconds” or ugly produce to someone who is going to cook it down anyway to make a sauce, jam, etc. and doesn’t mind a misshapen tomato. The exchange of unwanted produce to someone who has a direct use for it will reduce the cost of doing business for the maker and put money back into the pockets of the farmer all while reducing food waste.

To further sustain the success and to stimulate the food economy in the area, Mountain Roots is partnering with the Colorado’s West Central Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The West Central SBDC offers business advice and guidance in efforts to start and grow more small businesses within the community.

Mountain Roots is always working on “what’s next” but Conn reminds us, “Our goal is to bring people through the need for food relief into a place where they are not just self-sufficient but are able to participate back to be teachers, growers, sharers and participate in the local food system.”

They want to find real solutions to problems, not just Band-Aids. To further that, Conn emphasizes, “We are focused on incorporating more underrepresented audiences in our training programs, so that we can see more representation out there in the worlds of agriculture, environmental education and community food security in the future.

If you would like to get involved with the Mountain Roots efforts or are interested in helping local food security initiatives, head to mountainrootsfoodproject.org for more information.

Originally published in Summer + Fall 2023 issue of Colorado YOGA + life.

author - laura mills

LAURA MILLS
YOGA + Life Community Engagement Manager + Contributor
@l.millsy

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