Magazine Feature / People

Common Grounds founder switches focus to urban farming

From community-supported agriculture and farm-to-table restaurants to bestselling books by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, fresh, local food is all the rage in culinary America.

The problem, says Lisa Rogers, is that fresh and local isn’t as easy to come by as people think. All looks good at Whole Foods and the local farmers’ markets, but factor in conventional supermarkets and the majority of restaurants and we still live in an economy in which less than 0.1 percent of the food eaten by Coloradans is grown in Colorado.

Rogers (MBA ’99), who founded the north Denver coffeehouse Common Grounds in 1992 first became aware of the issue while working as a consultant for other restaurants and small businesses.

“One of the many things I was doing for restaurants was sourcing local supplies and foods and that sort of thing, and it was during that time that the ‘all restaurants want to be local’ fad started,” she says. “Every farm I called was so overwhelmed — they couldn’t get back to me, they really couldn’t promise anything, they had so many clients they could barely keep up with them.

“I realized that even though there were all these restaurants opening saying they get local, they really can’t be. To a certain extent, they’ll get a local thing here and there, but we do not produce the food that we need in Colorado, even for restaurants.”

Enlightened and inspired, Rogers began teaching herself about urban farming and how to grow food locally on a smaller scale. In 2008 she started Feed Denver: Urban Farms & Markets, a nonprofit dedicated to setting up small urban farms around the city. The organization opened its first farm, located in the Stapleton neighborhood, in 2009, followed by a parking lot farm in a north Denver “food desert” with lots of fast food joints but very limited access to fresh food. Feed Denver has partnered with McArthur “genius grant” award winner Will Allen and his organization Growing Power as a regional training center offering classes in urban agriculture.

“In 2008, I heard Will Allen on the 5 o’clock news and what he said really stuck with me, that we have to start growing our food where we live,” Rogers says. “We all know that when it comes to food the closer the better and the fresher the better and all of that, and that for our economy the further and further away we go to get things, the fewer and fewer jobs there are at home and the more perilous our security is regarding food access.”

Feed Denver has a strong mission to create an urban agriculture industry in Denver by planting farms and farm jobs that utilize bio-intensive, small space growing techniques, and greenhouses and aquaculture for year-round food production. At its core, the nonprofit is about feeding people — something Rogers is using her business background to do.

“If we can create a small farms in our neighborhoods that looks like a small business —like a coffeehouse with its 20 employees that supports four to five families — that will be good,” Rogers says. “That’s what Feed Denver is about.”

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