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City of Aspen takes on food security

Aug 29, 2016

Ashley Perl shows off the garden behind City Hall.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio

The City of Aspen is dipping its toes into the realm of food security and encouraging residents to grow their own vegetables and herbs.

Aspen sits in the heart of the arid west, and, as soon as the snow flies, at the end of a dead-end valley when Independence Pass closes.

Ashley Perl, who works for the city’s environmental health department, explained that Aspen’s geography creates some vulnerabilities in the foodshed, as was exposed last year when a rockslide closed Glenwood Canyon in February.

“If you went to the market a day after the rockslide, the shelves were bare,” Perl said. “Quite literally, I think I got the last package of chicken. And it happened in the winter, where, worst case scenario, we’re not growing anything here anyway.”

Perl is standing above the municipal government’s own vegetable garden, tucked neatly behind City Hall in the middle of the downtown core. She is part of an informal group that has started to dig into what it means for the Aspen community to develop more food security, and for Perl, it starts with small gardens, like this one.

The food security group is encouraging locals and businesses to convert 25 percent of their flower gardens to vegetables. They handed out seed packets and information about how to grow food in our somewhat urban landscape, and hosted a veggie garden competition this summer. Perl explained that some of the small city planters around town have hidden, sometimes unusual, veggies.

“You’re walking by, you’re inspired by how beautiful Aspen looks in the summer and then you go, ‘oh my goodness, is that an artichoke?’” Perl said. “We had a lot of people say, ‘I didn’t even know you could grow artichokes.’”

This area does have a short growing season, but one of the biggest challenges for the food security group has been identifying ways that local governments can help people get involved in food production, from commercial baking to small gardens.

Aspen's community garden recently expanded by 26 plots but still has a waitlist.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio

  Aspen’s community garden recently added 26 new plots. Local gardener Candice Oksenhorn said this provides important space to grow organic foods.

“Our environment gives us what we need,” she said.  

Candice Oksenhorn works in her plot in the community garden.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Public Radio

Oksenhorn has planted various greens, turnips, potatoes and more, but she said it’s more about learning and experimenting.

“At first I was always worried about doing it perfectly, and this year, I’m just sort of like, wow, I’m just going to enjoy this and whatever grows is good,” Oksenhorn said.

The food security team will soon make suggestions about how to expand agriculture on other city properties, like Cozy Point open space. Perl said she would like to see an incubator approach in which inexperienced farmers can learn from experts.

The draft management plan for Cozy Point is expected in the next several weeks, with agricultural bids to follow.