Observations in Health
||Members of the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council tour an orchard, accompanied by a feathered spectator.
Setting Colorado's Table for a More Robust, Healthier Food System
By Sandy Graham
Photography by Cynthia Torres
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Miller is the deputy commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture and head of the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council, which was formed in early 2010 to improve access to healthy food in the state. In his more than 20 years with the agriculture department, he also has served as director of policy and initiatives and as communications director. Miller grew up on a diversified farm in the Broomfield area. His experience in matters relating to agriculture and environmental protection date back to 1973, when he served as a legislative liaison for farm organizations in Denver and Washington, D.C.
Talk to food producers and you'll hear some of them opine that most people don't care where their food comes from, as long as it's cheap and it's available. Jim Miller begs to differ.
Miller, deputy commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, also chairs the Colorado Food Systems Advisory Council. During last summer's three- day barnstorming tour, encompassing about 10 stops and more than 550 miles, Miller and other council members heard the opposite message, loud and clear – a message that Miller also has heard traveling the state during his long career with the state agriculture department.
"The tour affirmed a couple of things for me," says Miller. "People are intensely interested in where their food comes from. We also learned from every stop the importance of being able to share experiences of different communities" in improving food systems.
As the council moves into its second full year of operation, one of its priorities is fostering communication among communities that are tackling food issues, Miller says. The state council has expanded its website (www.cofoodsystemscouncil.org) to serve as a clearinghouse for Colorado's ever-growing numbers of regional and local food coalitions and councils – about 10 as of a few months ago.
"The state council sees its role as being a resource for these local councils," Miller says. "We're available to help identify the means to address unique situations or help organize local food assessments. Local organizations also will be able to learn from each other's mistakes and achievements."
In addition to the communications subcommittee to lead this information sharing, the state council also has organized subcommittees for healthy food access, chaired by Ruth Stemler, state director of anti-hunger nonprofit Share Our Strength, and economic development, headed by Jim Isgar, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's coordinator for rural development in Colorado.
While agriculture and food will generate roughly $40 billion of economic activity in Colorado in 2012, according to state estimates, the council hopes to encourage other development opportunities in rural areas, Miller says. These include fostering participation of more growers in the increasing numbers of farmers markets around the state as well as linking producers to new markets, such as nearby schools and institutions that would like to use more locally grown foods in their cafeterias and meal programs.
"That's a real opportunity," Miller notes of the new market effort. The council is looking into the formation of hubs, or centers, that can process and store foods for smaller-size producers who want to take advantage of these new markets but don't have the needed infrastructure on their farms and ranches. (See story, Into the Hub, to learn about one Colorado hub launching this year.)
The council also coordinates its work with that of the Colorado Farm to School Task Force, formed by the state Legislature in 2010. The task force works to link food producers to K-12 schools. The goals are to help students get healthier, fresher, local food; connect producers to new markets; increase participation and grow revenues in school lunch programs; and increase awareness of local foods.
In the realm of healthy foods, the council's efforts center on connecting more low-income people to healthy food sources. The council's subcommittee is looking at ways to expand the number of Colorado farmers markets that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly called food stamps. SNAP uses an electronic benefits card that requires markets to have card-reading machines if SNAP recipients are to purchase market goods. Benefit recipients also need to know whether nearby markets can accept SNAP, so there's a communications element, too.
"It's a problem to provide those electronic benefit services at a farmers market, but it's not an insurmountable problem," Miller says.
The council has largely steered clear of food policy so far.
"We're going at that cautiously," Miller explains. "As an old guy in the ag community, I can assure you there were some misgivings among traditional agriculture groups about what was being created here." The traditionalists were concerned that the new Food Systems Advisory Council would try to influence the Legislature or executive branch in ways that some commodity-oriented groups could not endorse.
"What we've seen in the past year is a growing acceptance" of the council among the far-flung divisions of the Colorado agriculture industry, Miller adds. "We're focusing on things they agree with, too – economic development and access to healthy foods. Those serve both traditional agriculture and emerging agriculture."
In Miller's view, there's plenty of room at the table for everyone. When the council toured Colorado last summer, its stops included Aurora's DeLaney Farm, a community-supported agriculture project of Denver Urban Gardens; Holy Terror Farm in Paonia, showcasing different agricultural styles and a Web-based farmers market; the Ela Family Farms in Hotchkiss, where the fourth generation is growing organic fruit; and Guidestone Colorado and Land Link, complementary programs that help a new generation of farmers step into the shoes of retiring producers or absentee landlords.
Miller sees the trends exemplified by these entities as healthy – for people and for the agriculture industry in the state.
"I'm a free-market capitalist," he says. "I'm convinced that demand will create the supply, and when we as a society begin making better and better food choices, the food system will supply them."