Walking into our local food hub is like walking into the pantry of my grandmother — the one who gardened like she was going to feed the world: The place is full of women with rolled-up sleeves talking about their kids, the weather, and food. No one seems to mind that it’s a tight squeeze between stainless steel shelves, a two-step around the drums of grains and flour. They’re too busy admiring the local fare that’s just been delivered — the first batch of baby carrots, beets the color and size of human hearts, and the chard with jewel-like stems.
Just a decade ago, one of the hardest things about living in remote parts of the American Southwest was a dearth of fresh local food. In many small towns the greenest thing you’d find in the grocery store was a head of iceberg lettuce, wilted and road-weary from its travels. Indeed, we dwell in a region of extremes: temperatures soar, then plunge. Altitudes and attitudes are rarefied. And things are bone dry until a storm hits; whatever’s not swept away by wind or flash flood is soggy to the core. So it’s easy to believe we must import most of what we eat. Sure, there are now farmers markets in some of these places. I love the idea of donning a sun hat and putting a basket over my arm so I can stroll among vendors and choose carefully some heirloom tomatoes and braids of garlic. But as a full-time working mother, weekend mornings are a Matterhorn of laundry, the aftermath of sleepovers, and if I’m lucky, a quick walk before driving my kid to a birthday party. More often than not, hitting the farmers market gets nixed off the “To Do” list because there simply isn’t enough time. Luckily for me and my 500-plus neighbors living in Norwood, Colorado — a town atop a far-flung mesa that sits 34 miles downriver from Telluride and 99 miles from Moab, Utah — we boast one of the several hundred small, community-owned and operated organizations called food hubs. These venues facilitate aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and marketing of regionally-produced food products. Unlike other new businesses that have a survival rate of only 56 percent during their first five years, 96 percent of all new food hubs have maintained robust operations during the same period of time.
Norwood’s hub is called FRESH, which stands for “Food Resources Encompassing a Social Hub.” This community-based co-op is housed in a small, robin’s egg blue storefront on the town’s main drag. Inside, the shelves and coolers are filled with local and regional food products — from choice cuts of organic, pasture-raised meats to jam, honey, just-picked produce, and soap. There are dry-farmed beans in bulk — Four Corners favorites such as Anasazi, and pinto. For items that cannot be acquired nearby, FRESH sources from small independent organic food-producers who are closer than not, always with an eye on reducing impacts of food travel.
The hours are limited, so when FRESH is open, the place is usually hopping. You’ll no doubt rub one elbow with a young, dread-locked vegan mother while bumping the other into a plumber. You might see the cellist who drives from Telluride to shop at FRESH. Old time farmers and ranchers tip their hats as they pass through to drop off their wares. Artisan bakers lay out their still-warm goods on a baker’s rack like spiritual offerings. A volunteer (you can work in exchange for a discount on your groceries) grinds fresh nut butters while another makes a latté for the bleary-eyed schoolteacher who pulled an all-nighter to grade papers.
Between five and six o’clock on weekdays, working parents (myself included) stop to see what pre-made meals are ready to take home for dinner. The back of the store is home to Thorneycroft Kitchens, and Julie Thorneycroft — known throughout southwest Colorado for her top-rate culinary creations — conjures meat pies, lentil salads or veggie burritos, all of which are made using as many regionally-procured ingredients as possible. If you’re lucky enough to get your family’s share before Julie sells out, you’ll be singing her praises until bedtime.
At the center of the Norwood food hub is Leila Seraphin, a tall willow of a woman with an impressive CV in community organizing. She founded FRESH in 2016. In its first two years of business, sales increased by 58 percent. During the growing season, 80 percent of all goods sold are locally sourced. At Norwood’s Community Garden, she helped establish plots for the county food bank — ensuring fresh food is accessible to all. In the words of Hannah Rossman, FRESH board member and co-owner of Blue Grouse Bread, a local bakery that uses organic, heritage grains and hearth-baking methods, “Leila is a powerhouse. Sure, it took a devoted community to make the food hub happen, but it was Leila who galvanized our energy and turned it into something both joyful and viable.”
Paula Robinson and Sajun Folsom, a young couple who started with two cows and now run eighty head of grass-fed/finished beef under the banner of Laid Back Ranch, sell their products at FRESH. “The local hub gives us a way to support one another,” Robinson says. “That way, each producer can fill a niche for the community, rather than working within a more competitive model, which is more polarizing.”
There’s room for improvement. Shelf and cooler space is limited, so many people still find it necessary to supplement at other stores. For many of the mesa’s residents, there is a bit of a stigma. When one local stockman was asked if he shopped at FRESH, he replied, “Nah, that place is for the hippies.” And given the short growing season on the mesa, currently only 20 percent of the hub’s winter inventory is locally produced. There’s no doubt these things will improve, given the leadership and early successes of FRESH. One recent development is an online ordering and delivery service.
On a cool evening in early April, I poke a fork through the buttery crust of a Thorneycroft pot pie and see inside the tender bits of chicken from Indian Ridge Farm’s pastures — good grassy ground on which my daughter has chased butterflies. There are some of those just-pulled spring carrots and there are potatoes grown by a poet. These ingredients are stewed in savory herbs and a hearty bone broth produced here, too — just a few miles from our dining room table.
Yes, this way of shopping and eating is good for both the body and the earth. It keeps money on our mesa. But it also feeds our sense of gratitude and builds our appetite for collaboration.
And for these things, in the remote pockets of place we call home, we are ever so hungry for more.