We’ll start with a sobering statistic: One in three Coloradans are food insecure, according to 2021 data from Hunger Free Colorado. That means nearly two million Centennial Staters don’t have reliable access to nutritious food.

The good news: Local nonprofit UpRoot Colorado is helping combat the issue by diverting surplus crops from area farms (an act called gleaning) and redistributing them to nearby hunger-relief agencies, thus improving access to locally-grown, nutrient-dense food. Most of UpRoot’s gleaning takes place between May and November, though it does host some greenhouse gleaning events during winter months.

Nutrient-dense foods, also known as protective foods, are items that increase health and reduce the likelihood of disease, explains Rita Mary Hennigan, co-director of UpRoot. Think: Colorful fruits and vegetables—like spinach, kale, and arugula—as well as anything grown in local, nutrient-rich soil, adds Dave Laskarzewski, the organization’s other co-director. That could include plants, nuts, and legumes.

UpRoot was co-founded 2017 by Laskarzewski, Ciara Low, and Maggie Brown after a one-day food-waste awareness event in Denver highlighted how much excess food remains on farms. After three years of financial backing by Denver-based investor Impact Charitable, it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit and exacerbated food insecurity in Colorado. UpRoot’s work has made a sizable impact so far. Since 2017, the organization has gleaned and redistributed 104,569 pounds of nutrient-dense food—the equivalent of 894,439 servings—to local food pantries.

Laskarzewski, who helped organize the food-waste awareness event that led to UpRoot’s creation, and Hennigan, who previously worked for nonprofits aimed at increasing equity in food access, are UpRoot’s only full-time employees. They’re assisted by four part-time gleaning and food systems coordinators, who lead the organization’s gleaning events in the communities where they live. The rest of the organization runs entirely on the support of about 1,200 volunteers who help harvest excess crops at regular gleaning events held across the state. Excess crops are edible foods that farmers are unable to harvest and/or sell for various reasons, including agricultural labor shortages; cosmetic standards for produce; insect or weather damage; and low-market prices and high-harvest costs that make it uneconomical for farmers to harvest everything they produce, explains Hennigan.

Volunteers harvesting apples at a gleaning event. Photo courtesy of UpRoot Colorado
Volunteers harvesting apples at a gleaning event. Photo courtesy of UpRoot Colorado

UpRoot currently works in 10 Colorado counties on both sides of the Continental Divide, partnering with 40 local farms and 21 hunger-relief agencies. That includes metro area farms like Rebel Farms in Denver as well as Kilt Farm and Aspen Moon Farm in Longmont. It also encompasses growers like Eagle Springs Organic in Silt and Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt, among others.

“Ultimately, gleaning is an act of generosity on the part of the farmer, whose vocation it is to feed people,” Hennigan says. “And so what we’re enabling is farmers to get their surplus food to folks who will eat it, when otherwise that food would be tilled back into the earth.”

The hunger-relief agencies that receive bounty from UpRoot’s gleaning efforts include Sharing Ministries Food Bank in Montrose; Community Food Share in Boulder; and Metro Caring and Spirit of the Sun in Denver, among others. “We try to get the food from where it’s harvested to the closest distribution area,” says Laskarzewski, adding, “the lower footprint we can create, the better.”

But UpRoot’s work doesn’t just help those struggling with food insecurity. Hennigan believes the volunteer gleaning events increase people’s connection to food, which in turn, benefits local farmers and food systems.

“We feel that societally, so many of us eaters have become disconnected from sources of our food due to the industrialization of farming, the increase in size of the average farm, and consolidation of farms,” Hennigan says. “By creating opportunities for volunteers to step onto farm fields again, experience for just a couple of hours what it’s like to harvest food and experience all the hard work that goes into that, we believe that these connections that our program fosters can benefit the regional and local food system in the longer term.”

For example, after participating in a gleaning event, someone may be less likely to waste food at home and perhaps more likely to support their local farmer’s market or purchase food directly from a nearby grower.

Volunteers harvesting produce at a gleaning event. Photo courtesy of UpRoot Colorado
Volunteers harvesting produce at a gleaning event. Photo courtesy of UpRoot Colorado

Looking ahead, UpRoot’s goal is to develop a strategic plan that can help them work toward their mission of increasing nutritional security, decreasing food surplus, and increasing the economic resiliency of farmers, says Laskarzewski. And they invite all Coloradans to join the cause.

“We absolutely need the community,” says Laskarzewski. “The community is the lead here.”

Get Involved: Help support UpRoot’s mission by volunteering at one of their local gleaning events. Sign up on the UpRoot website to receive more information about how you can participate.

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