Alumna pursues passion for food justice with Denver nonprofit

Nyabweza Itaagi is harnessing her passion for food justice as a local engagement associate with Hunger Free Colorado. Photo by Wayne Armstrong

Nyabweza Itaagi is harnessing her passion for food justice as a local engagement associate with Hunger Free Colorado. Photo by Wayne Armstrong

During her sophomore year at the University of Denver, Nyabweza Itaagi embarked on a lifestyle experiment that would launch her on a soul-sustaining, nutrient-dense journey.

“I decided to become vegan — just to see the health effects, if I would feel better, more energized,” says Itaagi, who double majored in international studies and French and who graduated in June 2014.

The effort required of vegans — the careful shopping, the detailed planning and even the budgeting — got her to thinking. How did the inhabitants of food deserts find, not to mention afford, fresh vegetables and other healthy options? How did someone with a fixed or low income contend with costly dietary requirements?

With those and other questions in mind, Itaagi took DU classes and pursued extracurricular activities that helped her dive deep into the topic and some of its sister issues. Along the way, she discovered the concept of food justice. The term means different things to different people, but one prominent food nonprofit describes it this way: “Communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food … [grown] with care for the well-being of the land, workers and animals.”

The more Itaagi learned about food justice, the more impassioned she became. “Something just connected with me really strongly: This is something I love,” she says.

Today, she is harnessing her passion for food justice as a local engagement associate with Hunger Free Colorado, which describes itself as the state’s leading anti-hunger organization. As part of her job, Itaagi stages community education events and conducts ongoing research, helping the organization identify Denver neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income seniors who might need food assistance. It’s a population, she notes, that too often gets overlooked.

“Everyone wants to help kids, which is wonderful, but there is this whole other population that needs help,” she says.

For Itaagi, a graduate of Pomona High School in Arvada, Colo., DU had longstanding allure. Her mother, a Sturm College of Law graduate and an immigration attorney, made a point of bringing the young Itaagi to campus for visits.

“I started thinking about college in seventh grade,” she recalls. She was sold on the DU experience once she learned about its distinctive Cherrington Global Scholars study abroad program, which has earned the University a No. 1 ranking in the nation in terms of undergraduate participation in study abroad.

“I always have had a global mindset,” Itaagi says. No wonder, then, that, like nearly 70 percent of DU undergraduates, Itaagi took advantage of the Cherrington opportunity, choosing to study in French-speaking Senegal. Via Minnesota Studies in International Development, a program affiliated with the University of Minnesota, she took classes at the West African Research Center in the capital city of Dakar. She also lived for a few weeks in a small agricultural village. That experience only enhanced her interest in food justice.

“It was so cool to see people who had a connection to the food that they eat,” she says.

Her interest in food justice was further reinforced by a class on the international politics of food and by an internship with the GrowHaus, a nonprofit indoor farm, marketplace and educational center serving Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, where many residents struggle to afford and access healthy food. There, she taught a summer class about food justice to area high school students, covering everything from nutrition and gardening to the role food plays in building healthy communities.

Through the University’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, Itaagi also participated in Public Achievement, a program that allowed her to teach a course on community organizing to South High School sophomores. “Almost half of them,” she says, “were immigrants or refugees,” hailing from such countries as Russia, Thailand, Ethiopia and Sudan.

As relative newcomers to Denver, many of them were new to the idea that they could play a role in improving their communities, starting with the community at South High.

“A lot of them underestimated the impact that they could have,” she says. “Once they became more familiar with the process of community organizing, slowly they began to think critically about how they could take action.”

At Hunger Free Colorado, Itaagi is learning more about just how challenging taking action can be. Because the organization focuses, in large part, on policy, she has seen firsthand how even the best ideas and programs — school nutrition initiatives, for example — face challenges and occasional backlash. “There are constantly items that are coming up for reauthorization — and there’s always some kind of pushback,” Itaagi says.

With a future in community engagement in mind, Itaagi is headed to Chicago in the fall, where she will enroll in a graduate program in sustainable urban development at DePaul University. The program uses Chicago as a lab for an examination of the many ways in which development affects different communities.

“I love Denver,” Itaagi says, “but I am also wanting to learn more about other cities as well.”

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