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A rendering of the National Western Center. Photo courtesy of the Mayor’s Office of the National Western Center

A Preview of the National Western Center’s Food System Initiatives

The massive new campus, which is scheduled to debut in 2024, will house Denver’s first public market, events centers, educational exhibits, and more.

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The 115th Western Stock Show is canceled for 2021, but construction on the new National Western Center, where the Stock Show is based, continues. That event, which typically takes place over 16 days in January, represents much of Colorado’s agricultural past—so it’s fitting that its longtime home is working to better the state’s culinary future. The expanded National Western Center will be a year-round base supporting and strengthening Colorado’s food systems, with the goal of making healthy food accessible to everyone.

“It’s a little bit of a reset on the project for those who are familiar with the Stock Show—like Stock Show plus,” says Matt Barry, chief development officer for the National Western Center. “That’ll still be the anchor event, but we’re building on top of the work they’ve been doing for past 100 years on livestock and agricultural work. We were charged with how to program and operate the rest of the campus in its new mission: to feed the world and come up with new food solutions.”

Five years ago, Denver voters approved a measure to construct the new National Western Center on the longtime site of the National Western Complex. As the upgraded development takes shape, the National Western Center nonprofit is already laying the groundwork to manage and program the 250-acre campus, which will eventually include Denver’s first public market, events centers, exhibits for K-12 education (and beyond), workforce development programs, agricultural apprenticeships for future farmers, and so much more. The complex’s first buildings are expected to debut in 2022, with most opening in 2024 or later. All of the initiatives center around the idea of advancing good food solutions for years to come.

Further galvanizing this mission, the National Western Center just won a $25,000 prize in a global competition sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Of the 1,300 global submissions answering the call of what a resilient food system would look like in their region, National Western’s How the West was One vision finished in the top 15. “It gave us some small funding to kickstart the work, but more importantly, to engage stakeholders, growing our network from southwest Colorado to northeast Colorado, and everywhere in between,” Barry says.

Indeed, a big part of the center’s mission and its vision involves connecting the urban parts of our state with the rural, building a network of people across our food systems to help right the wrongs of our agricultural past. A big word for the center is collaboration, as it was founded by the City and County of Denver, the National Western Stock Show, History ColoradoColorado State University, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

One such product of those partnerships is the Colorado Farm & Food Systems Respond & Rebuild Fund which is intended to help small- and medium-size farmers and ranchers survive COVID-19. So far, the fund has given out $350,000 in small grants of about $5,000 each to these smaller operations that have had their supply chains destroyed, with another $200,000 available to help mitigate losses and fund necessary pivots to direct-to-consumer models. “Several [farmers and ranchers] shared that that money has given them hope that they’ll stay afloat,” Barry says. “It just shows how tight those margins are and how close they are to walking away.”

Providing resources to our essential rural growers will be a priority for the center, via initiatives like connecting them to urban buyers, helping them switch to regenerative agricultural practices for better soil and water health, and promoting agricultural innovation and technology.

“The COVID crisis showed the fragility in our current food system and the importance of designing a more resilient, equitable food system in the future,” Barry says. “If there’s a silver lining to COVID, it’s shown us where there are structural issues in our food system and how we can rebuild.”

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