Colorado Springs food policy council looks to fight obesity through sustainability

July 5, 2014 Updated: July 5, 2014 at 11:28 am
photo - Kellie and Tracy Dodson have maximized their yard space by having multiple vegetable gardens, a green house, a chicken coop and two bee hives. They were photographed in their back yard Thursday, July 3, 2014. Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette
Kellie and Tracy Dodson have maximized their yard space by having multiple vegetable gardens, a green house, a chicken coop and two bee hives. They were photographed in their back yard Thursday, July 3, 2014. Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette 

Every inch of Kellie Dodson's back yard has a purpose.

Twenty-four types of vegetables sprout from her property just east of downtown, even hanging from gutters nailed to her fence. She tends two chicken coops and a greenhouse, while beehives buzz in her front yard.

Call it sustainability space. Or a healthy habit.

Now imagine that on a city-wide scale.

A Colorado Springs food policy council could help accomplish that and more - serving as an umbrella for all of the various food-based groups across the city and influencing public policy to create jobs in the organic-foods sector.

This past week, roughly 40 people began brainstorming ways to start one in the Pikes Peak region, making it the latest incarnation of a burgeoning national trend.

Colorado Springs city councilwoman Jill Gaebler and the leaders of a few nonprofits started the newest group, though it remains in the conceptual stage.

"I just really want this group to represent the community and compliment what the other food groups are already doing," Gaebler said. "I don't want it to take the place of them. And I want it to be a hub for all of them to work together."

Such councils have surged in popularity in recent years, spurred by people who have grown wary of pesticides, or who want to stop the nation's obesity epidemic while bolstering the economy.

In 2011, Johns Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future counted 96 councils across the nation. That number has since more-than doubled, and many more likely exist without their knowledge, said Anne Palmer, the center's program director.

Their structures vary - some are registered nonprofits, others are city commissions and many exist simply as informal groups meeting on a monthly basis.

In Omaha, Neb., the Metro Omaha Food Policy Council recently helped the city identify vacant plots of land suitable for growing food, then helped lease 15 of them for the creation of community gardens and urban farms. Another 100 could be leased next year, said Mary Balluff, who sits on the council's board.

Omaha's council also sought the use of edible plants - nut trees, for example, rather than maple - during planing for a park renovation.

It began as a means to combat several health issues in Omaha, including troublesome obesity and diabetes rates, as well as the presence of two distinct food deserts - areas with no grocery stores within a one-mile radius.

The time is ripe for a similar council in Colorado Springs, Gaebler said.

Nearly 58 percent of adults in El Paso County through age 64 were overweight or obese, according to El Paso County Public Health's most recent data in 2011 and 2012. Nearly one in three children ages 2 through 14 also fell into that category from 2010 through 2012.

"People associate fast food with being cheap," Gaebler said. "And it is cheap - but it's not cheap for your health."

Exactly how the council takes shape remains to be seen.

It may be a city task force, one formed early this fall to convene for a short period of time. Or it may be a formally established city commission, one that would take months to create because city council would need to approve it.

Commissions do not cost taxpayer dollars, Gaebler said. Rather, they convene to address long-term issues while seeking grants, if need be.

The council's creation comes less than two months after Gaebler led an effort to allow miniature goats to be considered pets in Colorado Springs.

It also happens as the city embarks on a new Parks, Recreation, Trails and Open Space Master Plan. At least half of the respondents to a recent city survey felt the city had "too little" or "far too little" community gardens, places to fish, and winter or special-needs recreation areas.

At a June 30 meeting, about 40 people brainstormed initiatives for the new group.

Some suggested an incubator kitchen where people could hatch businesses then move out so other aspiring food entrepreneurs could move in. Others pondered a mobile poultry slaughtering unit that could help alleviate the strain of state and federal regulations that limit the slaughter and sale of chickens.

Residents voiced support for more outreach to homeowners associations to spur more backyard gardens, while some people advocated for more community gardens. Others simply wanted more childhood education on healthy eating habits.

For the Dodsons, simply offering a more organized approach to the region's food system proved refreshing, along with the possibility of it helping to ease the regulatory burden on urban farmers.

The couple manages a small business called Homegrown and Happiness, wherein the couple offers small classes on creative ways for backyard gardening.

The couple decided a few years ago to expand their crops to provide healthier food for their daughter. It also helped Kellie's husband, Tracy Dodson, who had high blood pressure.

They plan to host a demonstration this month for neighbors to teach humane ways to butcher chickens. They purchased about 15 chicks who have since grown into supper-sized birds.

"My kids are eating (the homegrown food) and that is incredible right there," Kellie Dodson said.

"When we changed our food, our kids were like "Oh, you guys are turning into hippies," added Tracy Dodson, with a laugh. "But now, they don't want to eat at the fast food anymore."

They want more people to do the same by planting some vegetables and eating healthier.

With any luck, they said, the new council might help that endeavor.

"That's kind of the key with this whole food thing - is for people to start knowing where their food comes from, and making good choices based on that," Tracy Dodson said.

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