There was a cloud of uncertainty in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemicand temporary stockouts led to more confusion.
Toilet paper has become notoriously scarce in local stores. Rumors of food shortages were also circulating.
Allison Rea was among those concerned about the latter. She feared driving to the store to find scarce food options and wanted to increase her household’s food security. So she started a garden.
Rea, a Pueblo resident, learned how to save seeds through community garden initiatives and picked up tips from a local seed bank. She started growing plants and continued to expand her knowledge and expertise.
Rea hasn’t let go since. She has spent the past few years cultivating her garden in her backyard. When presented with the chance earlier this year to join the Gardeners — a group of volunteer gardeners with the Pueblo Food Project Community Garden Sustainability Project — she said yes.
“I wanted to use my work and my skills to produce something that could help nurture the community,” Rea said.
Rea is one of many dedicated volunteers working with the project. On the first Saturday of each month, they clean, weed and harvest local community gardens. About 45 people have registered so far to volunteer.
On a recent sunny Saturday, despite extreme heat, Rea and a few other volunteers spent an hour weeding and harvesting produce at the Empowerment Center Community Garden, just yards from a local food pantry.
They filled a few buckets and a small box with tomatoes, lettuce and peppers.
“It’s good and reassuring to know that even though the food system has a problem, there is a way for Puebloans to feed themselves,” Rea said. “(The Empowerment Center garden) is particularly good for this because it is right next to a food distribution center. It’s kind of a very firm-to-the-table vibe here.
The Community Garden Sustainability Project, through its gardens, provides produce to local food boards and agencies. Each garden uses a drip irrigation system to combat Pueblo’s drought conditions.
The program is in its first year and is funded by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). He received a handful of awards – $1,000 for up to five existing community gardens; $1,000 for two new gardens; the purchase of two tool sheds for $500 each; and a $500 tool allowance in each shed.
The funding also covers the stipend of the program coordinator, Deric Stowell, master gardener since 2014 and one of the many people involved in the project.
“Every one of the volunteers involved in the gardens, they’re so awesome,” Stowell said. “They’re so dedicated and they really want to see good things come out of this effort.”
Before some volunteers started work last Saturday, Stowell spent the first 10 minutes guiding them through pollination and seed saving. They also discussed how to make the gardens sustainable.
“Everyone has their own idea of what it takes to make a garden, but what we want to do with this project is we want to get everyone on the same page,” Stowell said. “We want to create a way for everyone to benefit from the group of volunteers in each of the gardens.”
The volunteers want the community to benefit as well, and the project is responding to the impacts caused by the pandemic in two ways: by providing more equitable access to locally grown food and by promoting community engagement and resilience.
“Being part of the community, I feel truly empowered to move forward into 2023 and beyond with confidence and excitement over the fear and excitement that rocked us in 2020,” said volunteer Mark Montoya.
Montoya, like Rea, started his own garden in 2020 after hearing rumors of food shortages, and he really took to it.
“I never thought I would be so passionate about gardening,” he said. “I feel like gardening is my lifestyle.”
Montoya channeled his concerns about supply chain disruptions into his gardening and involvement with gardeners. He wants to make a professional pivot in the agricultural industry, but focuses on the action first.
Food preservation, in particular, is at the top of his mind.
“For people without means, getting organic food at this level is very difficult,” Montoya said. “Pueblo in general is a food desert because so much is scattered and outside of a mile or two radius. That’s all the more reason for us to strengthen our community gardens.
Rea wants to see more community gardens spring up around Pueblo and shares a similar mindset when it comes to preservation. She said reuse through composting or animal food scraps could help Pueblo’s food system take a step forward.
“One weird thing about Pueblo is that there are food deserts here on the East Side, despite being only a few miles from Pueblo County agricultural production,” said Rea. “It’s strange to me that our city and county can be so strong in terms of food production, but there are pockets in Pueblo where you can’t buy a fresh vegetable unless you cross the freeway.”
About 25% of Pueblo County residents have to travel more than 5 miles to find the nearest place to buy food, according to survey data provided by Care and Share Food Bank for southern Colorado. For nearly 3% of county residents, that distance is more than 30 miles.
Community efforts are underway to better serve the east Pueblo. The sustainability project helps local agenciesand volunteers are taking action and wanting to teach people how to grow their own food, Stowell said.
“Pueblo is poised to weather supply chain, food shortages better than many communities,” Montoya said. “It’s also about making the call to involve more people and inspire them to take control of their own independence and their own food.”
Chief Reporter Josue Perez can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @josuepwrites.