In three long garden beds leading up to a courthouse, eggplants, tomatoes, jalapenos and herbs grow in different shapes and sizes. Flowers bloom. Watermelons balloon and ripen.

In Pueblo, Colorado, where this garden grows, anyone can come up and help themselves to any number of the vegetation options. The garden beds outside the courthouse are one of four locations housing the Pueblo Food Project’s edible landscapes, an initiative aimed at improving community access to healthy food.

“People are starting to understand where their food comes from, and why it’s important to grow your own food,” says Deric Stowell, a gardener who helps maintain the courthouse landscape.

The Pueblo Food Project is a community coalition that’s been around since 2019, rooted heavily in a meeting convened with local stakeholders by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and former Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb to talk about bolstering the area’s food system. Notably, a 2020 report by the Colorado Health Institute shows that nearly 1 in 5 residents of Pueblo County – where the city of Pueblo is the county seat – experienced food insecurity in 2019, marking the highest rate in the state.

“After the Safeway on the east side of Pueblo closed several years ago, it was inconceivable to me that a community with such a rich history of local farming and agriculture would struggle with access to food,” Bennet, a Democrat, tells U.S. News in an email. From the summit convened by Bennet and Robb, the framework for the Pueblo Food Project was born; it has since received state funding and is managed by city and county officials.

“Thanks to community leaders and the people of Pueblo, the project has flourished into a national model for how communities can come together to develop vibrant, sustainable, nutritious, and equitable local food systems,” Bennet says.

The food project encompasses multiple moving parts, says Monique Marez, its coordinator. It also includes partnerships with local shelters to provide quality, healthy foods; educational programs for schools and community members; and advocacy for an effective food system.

“The most important thing for us is that we do this work in the community. It’s not a top-down approach,” Marez says. In other words, community members matter and have a voice in all decision-making, she says, as the project aims to move Pueblo beyond being the county with the highest food insecurity in the state.

“What we’re trying to do at the food project is sort of … change that narrative,” she says. “To say, ‘Hey, you, as an individual, are important, your voice as an individual is important, your health and well-being are important to us as a community,'” she says.

Edible landscapes are one part of the equation. Put simply, they’re accessible gardens where fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs are ripe – literally – for the taking. The idea of creating an edible landscape is not new – others in the U.S. and around the world have built similar gardens that are not just delicious, but aesthetically pleasing and community-friendly.

“There’s no one monitoring the garden, saying, ‘Hey you can’t take that,'” Marez says.

In Pueblo, the edible landscapes started as a beautification and awareness project, rather than something that could immediately cure food insecurity in the city, Marez says – more like a sign saying, “Hey, look at how easy it is to have tomatoes or peppers in your backyard, and to make the city more vibrant.”

But as the project got underway, Marez says, volunteers – known as stewards of the gardens – got creative, and more community members got involved. The stewards have total autonomy over the space, she says, choosing what goes into them and how to help people interact with the space.

“You’re welcome to go harvest some herbs right now – they might go well with some of the things you have in your bag,” Marez recalls volunteers saying at a food distribution drive held at one edible landscape. “Come back in two weeks and all of those green tomatoes that you see, those are going to be ripe and there for you.”

The edible landscapes are managed by master gardeners who are part of a countywide, Colorado State University Extension program that helps volunteers learn how to plan, grow and maintain a garden. Sherie Shaffer, a horticulture agent with CSU Extension, says her group got involved with Pueblo’s edible landscapes in 2020 as volunteers struggled to find projects to take part in during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The landscapes, Shaffer says, offered an outdoor escape when volunteers could schedule different times to work in the gardens. Master gardeners, she says, weed the garden beds, plant new crops, water them and create signage. When people come up to check out the garden, they offer their expertise, letting them know that anything can be harvested.

In the future, Shaffer says, master gardeners hope to have more face-to-face interactive events and educational programs with community members, such as showing them how to deconstruct an edible garden during the winter months and how to recognize different types of weeds.

Master gardener Laura Norman visits an edible landscape at Sister Cities Plaza in Pueblo once a week, replanting, watering and maintaining the space. People often come to a nearby water fountain and then become interested in the garden. She sees the space not just as a way to improve the aesthetic quality of the city, but also to promote community.

“I see people there who are interested in the garden, so that’s a little bit of social gathering,” she says.

Stowell, who helps manage the garden at the courthouse and is a member of the Pueblo Food Project’s advisory council, says the edible landscapes have given people the chance to feel more invested in their community. Litter, for example, has decreased in the area around the courthouse, which Marez adds has occurred across all edible landscapes. Stowell also says master gardeners have developed a school curriculum starting this fall to teach local students about growing their own garden.

And the success of the edible landscapes is evident. Just look.

“We know it’s working because No. 1, the fruits are always disappearing off the plant,” Stowell says. People “are eating the produce – or at least we think they are, because it’s disappearing – which is exactly what we want.”

Source News