Joan Clemons, director of the Hillside Community Center, tends to the center’s garden.

Joan Clemons is the first to say that the Hillside Community Garden is not run by experts.

“We just saw a need and said, ‘Hey, can we do this? Yes, we can,’” said Clemons, director of the Hillside Community Center in Southeast Colorado Springs. “We just wanted to do something for our kids and our families, and it grew from there.”

Therein lies the beauty of community food projects. No expertise is required, only a little bit of education and collaboration.

Community food projects — which can encompass anything from food pantries to urban gardens — are a powerful tool in combatting food insecurity, particularly in areas with limited access to affordable, healthy foods, said Zac Chapman, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Springs Food Rescue.

“There isn’t really a grocery store within a 2-mile radius of where we are right now,” Chapman said, sitting at a table in the nonprofit’s office on East Moreno Avenue. “The closest thing were two 7-Elevens and one of the 7-Elevens just closed, even. The closest grocery store here is a Save A Lot on [South Circle Drive], which just doesn’t make it as accessible for a lot of the neighbors here.”

That’s why the Colorado Springs Food Rescue partners with neighborhoods such as Hillside that face unique barriers to fresh food access, Chapman said. Through programs like the Hillside Community Garden and the Food Rescue’s upcoming Hillside Food Hub project, the entire neighborhood is helping close food equity gaps in an historically underserved corner of the city.

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HILLSIDE COMMUNITY GARDEN

The 1-acre plot of land — located just on the other side of the hill from the community center — sprang from a 2013 project for the center’s summer program students.

“I came to Ms. Joan and said, ‘We need to expand this. We need a bigger space,’” said Windy Langlois, a recreation assistant at the community center. “Then we went to the powers that be with the city and asked for some park space.”

City council granted the center’s request to block off the plot for gardening purposes, and community involvement grew over time, Clemons said, with volunteers helping to build up the garden, put up a fence and collect donations.

Since then, Clemons said, the garden has undergone various iterations — some more successful than others.

“One year we did rentals, and that did not work out so well,” Clemons said. “People were excited about it and then weren’t able to come back and take care of their beds.”

Now, Hillside staffers tend to the garden four days a week. While the land is gated, anyone can come to the center during its operating hours and ask for the key to pick fresh produce ranging from zucchini to kale to collard greens.

The garden’s main caretakers, however, are the students who attend the center’s seven-week summer program — some of whom are experiencing fresh produce for the first time, Clemons said.

“There is no venue in this area that you can just go and get fresh vegetables,” she said. “It was surprising how many kids did not know that carrots come with green leaves on the top, because you see them in the grocery store and they’re already cut.”

Even more exciting for Clemons is seeing kids take their newfound knowledge home to their parents — many of whom have since started their own gardens.

“They’re learning it doesn’t have to come out of a jar or a can — that there [are] abilities to enjoy fresh produce [and] you can do these things at home. You may not have a big area of land, but you can grow some things at home,” Clemons said. “Being that they’re our future, we want them to be knowledgeable about what can be available to them.”

EDUCATION AND ACCESS

The Hillside Community Garden aligns with a fundamental tenet of the Colorado Springs Food Rescue’s mission, which is engaging youth in cultivating a healthy, equitable food system, Chapman said.

A major misconception about food access and education programs is that consumers lack the ability or the desire to prepare healthy food, Chapman said.

“All the surveys we’ve received show that, time and time again, the most important foods for families who are food insecure are fresh fruits and vegetables, and meats and dairies,” Chapman said. “I think there is this misconception that folks don’t know how to eat well when often it’s really wrapped up into wider structural issues — such as, if I’m working three jobs and I’m a single mother and have five children, I’m probably not going to have the time to access healthy, fresh food.”

Time, cost of food, geographic distance and culture are the four main things that affect the foods people eat, rather than a lack of education or knowledge, Chapman said.

“The real interest that we have in lining up education and access is how they can be mutually beneficial with one another and … how it can help root and grow leadership development — specifically with our youth to get engaged in our food system,” he said.

‘LIVING RESOURCE’

The Colorado Springs Food Rescue hopes to marry all facets of its mission by constructing a neighborhood food center on a 3.5-acre parcel of land in the Southeast. The land was donated by the Legacy Institute in Colorado Springs.

The project, called the Hillside Food Hub, will be a space for urban farming, compost production, micro-enterprise development, educational workshops and fresh grocery distribution.

“We have deep relational ties with [the Hillside] neighborhood, and this is also a neighborhood that’s been historically underinvested in and, in a lot of ways, marginalized by our city,” Chapman said.

“So we see this very much as an equitable development that’s really rooted from neighborhood stakeholders and from members of our staff who have been building relationships in this community for over a decade.”

One of the Hub’s main concepts, a “learning garden,” is already on the site. Last summer, three high school students from the Hillside neighborhood and Southeast Colorado Springs worked alongside the Food Rescue’s education department to build the garden, Chapman said.

“We’re in the very pilot phase of the garden,” he said. “We don’t even have water utilities hooked up at the site.”

Adjacent to that is Colorado Springs’ only indigenous healing garden, led by the Haseya Advocate Program, a nonprofit working to address domestic violence against Native women.

“That program is one of the only programs on the property that’s not ostensibly open to the public,” Chapman said. “The purpose is to provide a space for specifically the clients of Haseya Advocates and Title VI students of District 11 for healing through food and through stories.”

(Title VI aims to help Native American students meet achievement standards, while meeting unique cultural needs.)

A commercial farm rooted in a four-season solar greenhouse will provide leafy greens and produce for sale year-round. That component will include a compost drop-off and processing site for local nonprofit SoilCycle, a subsidiary of Colorado Springs Food Rescue.

“There will be a site for folks to see different methodologies for composting and also a space for them to drop off their compost and really feel out the process of making soil,” Chapman said.

The final component will be a 4,300-square-foot community gathering space, where the food rescue group will move its no-cost grocery program and staff administrative offices, Chapman said.

“That will also be a site for no-cost and low-cost grocery distribution and community workshops,” he said. “The overarching structure is an integrated space for fresh food access, education and production and job training.”

Joan Clemons holds a tomato grown at the Hillside Community Garden.
Joan Clemons holds a tomato grown at the Hillside Community Garden.

Colorado Springs Food Rescue currently hopes to break ground on the building next summer, “but that’s going to be contingent on fundraising and the timing of the building department,” Chapman said.

As of early October, the Food Rescue had raised $1.2 million, roughly half of the necessary amount to complete the project, he said.

“Having integrated spaces where we can meld together various forms of resource distribution, opportunities, community connections, spaces for healing — by virtue of having an integrated space, the effects on community health and well-being are so much more catalytic,” Chapman said.

“Also … by virtue of growing into a space where we have a lot of our own programming in-house, that will allow us to really grow into an organization that’s more than just being network based. The resources that are created out of that space can go to benefit our programmatic partners throughout the city.”