Into the Uncharted: Food Access in Denver

We’re doing something different.

We rebranded to Uncharted because putting the social entrepreneur in the center of everything—helping anyone who was working on anything, anywhere—had its limits. By being so broad, it was difficult to measure what kind of impact we were making on specific issues.

Now we’re putting the problem in the center of our work. We want to learn what happens when you build a coordinated movement of people who are tackling the same problem, just from different sides. Could we possibly make a significant and measurable dent in that problem?

In September, we set sail.

1 in 6 families in Denver live in low-income areas with no access to fresh food. We want to learn how to change that.

In September, we teamed up with The City of Denver to run Uncharted Food Access. We invited ventures like The GrowHaus and UpDig, who are cultivating community through urban, affordable farms. There was SAME Cafe, a nonprofit restaurant that serves local and fresh meals regardless of ability to pay. We had mobile grocery stores like Any Street Grocery and Goodness Groceries present, who are tackling the issue of accessing healthy food when it’s not close by. And then there was Copia, a technology platform that connects businesses with excess food to communities in need.

(This is just a sampling, read about all our ventures here.)

We partnered with The City of Denver, who has invested in tackling food deserts for years and is looking for new solutions. We invited mentors like the Head of Sustainability at Chipotle, the former Head of Marketing at Celestial Seasonings, and the Co-Chair for the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council to help our entrepreneurs solve critical challenges.

We had 28 mentors in total attend our program!
Here is an example of our model, which we call The Gravity Model—pulling people in from all angles to address a single issue.

We pulled in fundraising expert Kerry Suddes from For Impact and prototyping wizard Tom Chi from Google X for day-long workshops. We facilitated strategic planning sessions, pitch practicing, mentorship meetings, and more.

“This was a breath of fresh air — it’s easy to fall into the same strategies and traps. Today was a good jolt to think differently.” — Eric Kornacki, Re:Vision

Then we moved even further into the uncharted. Yes, we are trying to support ventures to help them scale, but we’re also doing something we’ve never tried: building a coordinated movement of people who are all dedicated to a single problem and seeing what we can do together to solve it.

We posed this question:

How do we moved from the venture to the ecosystem? Outside of your venture, what is it going to take to put a dent in food deserts in Denver?

We got our sticky notes out, pulled up our prototyping sleeves, and got to work, coming up with a lot of ideas—from quarterly outcomes-oriented roundtable meetings, to collaborate buying groups and a food access awareness working group.

As a cohort, we decided on two ideas to move forward with:

  1. Develop a reverse RFP to end food deserts by 2030
  2. Band together to become a justice league for food access

A month after our program, we met for our first ever post-program working session, where we took steps to figure out how to use our collective power to fight food deserts. During the session, a goal was determined for the group to work towards: Pilot a program to reduce food insecurity by 55%.

(We will be facilitating recurring meetings with our food access cohort, so make sure you follow us on Medium to see our progress!)

So, what did we learn?

We learned a lot over the last few months, and boiled it down to three main takeaways:

  1. Our biggest, unexpected bright spot was peer collaboration. This was the first time we brought together ventures who’re working on the same problem in the same place. We helped facilitate peer mentorship and collaboration opportunities, which resulted in new partnerships and a cohort commitment to build an RFP and create a food advocacy group.
“You all have been a source of inspiration. How can we work with each and every one of you? We have to grow together. How can we build collective capacity?” -Daniel Craddock

2. There’s tension between local effort and selection. We were also limited by working in our own backyard. Going forward, we want to attract more folks from outside of Denver to fill the city with more resources, like funding and talent.

3. We have so much more to do. The in-person bootcamp was only five days, which is not long enough to create a lasting dent. An ideal version of this program would be at least twice as long so we can chart the course further from food deserts to food access.

Yet, there is something else we discovered in the uncharted.

There’s something that happens that’s not on the schedule, in our curriculum, or part of our impact metrics. The only way to describe it is a stew of energy that cooks up when you get people together who all deeply care about a single issue.

This energy occurs between the cracks, during the breaks, and after program hours. It happens when we’re having a cooking contest after a long day of workshops, racing to prepare a 3-course meal with a can of chickpeas (no can opener), spaghetti squash, mustard greens, and a cook stove.

It happens when we’re playing skee ball at a dive bar, sharing mundane musings, hopes, and dreams. It’s when two people who’ve never met on Monday are hugging on Friday — how a community can form in less than a week, creating important stories and action items to fuel forward into our future.

We can’t write a playbook for how to take a community and create lasting, coordinated action.

Coordinated action arises from the people within a community, each person paying a pivotal role in shaping it into something powerful. Where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—where we can bend the arc towards a more just world for all. Together.

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