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Nourishing Change Through a Local Food Revolution in Denver, and Beyond

Every day except Christmas at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, visitors who’ve examined fossils or explored insect life can head to the T-Rex Cafe with its stunning centerpiece: a 24-foot salad bar, mostly crammed with locally grown produce.

The emphasis on locally sourced food—which accounts for 35 percent of the museum’s overall food budget of some $2 million annually and more than half of the salad bar offerings – lowers its carbon footprint, promotes more flavorful and nutritionally dense choices, and boosts the local economy.

It’s all thanks to the efforts of the museum’s Food and Beverage Director, Patrick Hartnett, working hand in hand since 2019 with the Denver Department of Health and Public Environment’s Institutional Food Program Administrator, Marion Kalb. “With Marion, I learned about this style of local good food purchasing, which matched our values at the museum, and I dove in,” Hartnett recalled.

Who benefits? Not only the 1,200 to 2,000 people who lunch at the museum daily, but local farmers who supply the museum, like Sally Herbert of Altius Farms, growing leafy greens and herbs in aeroponic towers on a downtown Denver rooftop, Rex Moore of Rock River Ranches, who raises bison, and Colorado-based peach growers and quinoa producers who hold contracts with the museum.

And the planet itself. The climate impact is tangible.

Food transportation contributes to one-fifth of global emissions related to food annually, with high-income countries disproportionately responsible. An added benefit is a reduced need for food storage, which also saves energy.

Investing in locally produced food also creates a more accountable and transparent system that increases our understanding of how our food is grown, and what impact it is having on climate, consumers, and farmers.

fruit and salad laid out at a salad bar
Salad bar at Denver Museum of Nature and Science, most ingredients locally produced. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Hartnett)

Kalb has advised on multiple good food purchasing efforts as part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Good Food Strategy, launched in 2022 as its largest-ever investment in food and nutrition.

The aim is to reach 40 million people in three years with food grown locally and sustainably that benefits human health, protects the planet, and creates equitable opportunity.

Institutional purchasing is a big part of that. Denver also partners with the Center for Good Food Purchasing, a Foundation grantee since 2019 that provides cities and institutions with a good food procurement framework, analysis of their food purchasing data, target setting support, policy guidance, and more.

Its Good Food Purchasing Program has now been adopted in 25 cities among institutions representing over $1 billion in food-spend each year.

  • Food is about more than what we eat. It impacts our climate and economy. Our public institutions can get more out of every dollar by purchasing food that supports diverse producers, drives local economic growth, and rewards smart environmental practices.
    Noah Cohen-Cline
    Director, Food Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

Balancing Food Funds With Good Policies

Kalb grew up in California – “the quintessential Valley Girl,” she quipped – but a Peace Corps stint in Gabon found her working closely with subsistence farmers.

“I was amazed at how the system worked against them,” she recalled. “It changed me. When I returned to the U.S., I wanted to keep working with farmers.”


Marion Kalb speaking at a 2022 event to celebrate the successes of the Good Food Purchasing Program at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. (Photo courtesy of Marion Kalb)

U.S. public and private institutions spend about $120 billion on food annually, largely prioritizing lowest cost, but not accounting for impacts on health, climate, fair labor, or economic growth.

Cities like Denver have been leading the way on values-based purchasing, recognizing that investing in good food pays off in other ways.

The challenge local governments and institutions face can be expressed in a single word – “capitalism,” Hartnett noted with a laugh. “Produce from smaller farms is going to be more expensive. But at the same time, supporting local farms adds to the local economy and builds resilience.”

Denver city agencies spend up to $30 million annually on their food budgets and currently, 8 percent of that goes to purchase locally produced food products. By 2030, Kalb’s goal is to see that increase to 25 percent. “We have to succeed, for the good of everyone,” she said. “But changing systems that currently prioritize price over people is difficult work.”

  • outside of a greenhouse
    Altuis Farms, on a rooftop in downtown Denver. (Photo courtesy of Sally Herbert)

Five Pieces of Advice for Cities

From her time in the trenches, Kalb has advice for other cities trying to move toward encouraging institutional procurement of good food.

  1. Make sure you have a city policy around Good Food Purchasing that can be referenced by city institutions. The biggest challenge is that most public institutions are trying to get food products at the lowest cost possible, while trying to do what is best for the planet, people, and animals. A policy will help.
  2. Form a coalition, even as you write the policy, to make sure you are hearing various communities’ voices with their own philosophies and priorities. Include various government agencies as well as non-governmental organizations, farm organizations, anti-poverty groups.
  3. Work to understand various priorities. Some organizations want publicity for supporting local food producers. Others want to support the planet, but it has to be affordable. Some primarily want the cheapest food possible because their profit margins are so slim. Understanding goals will help you to creatively help them institute Good Food Purchasing practices.
  4. Meet regularly; the Denver Good Food Coalition meets every other month.
  5. Consider campaigns for public education, to let consumers know why you are making the changes you are.
inside of a greenhouse
Greens growing in Altuis Farms greenhouses in downtown Denver. (Photo courtesy of Sally Herbert)

Passionate Farmers, Sustainable Visions

Herbert, who founded her vertical farm in 2018 after decades in the corporate world, makes time to talk in the midst of delivering leafy greens and herbs she grows.

She employs eight people at Altius Farms, but also works seven days a week herself.

Though restaurants are the bulk of Altius Farm’s business, “if I had my druthers, I would sell much more to institutions,” Herbert said.


She knows one sticking point for many institutions is that the price point is higher with small organic farms.

Nine percent of farms are run entirely by women according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Herbert doesn’t care about the farmers’ gender, as long as farmers keep being supported enough to stay in business–a concern for most farms nationally, as 76 percent of farmers earn less than $50,000 a year.

“I want to see farmers out there. I am hoping people working for me are inspired to keep this as a career, or source locally, or grow their own,” she said.

“I’m so passionate about what we are doing every day,” Herbert added. “It’s a rewarding line of work and also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Coming into the market I thought everyone would just buy our greens out of the gate. It took relationship-building, and working 80-hour weeks with no break. Now, though, we sell everything we grow and we are close to our customers.”

Lunch with the Bison

Moore is the third generation of ranchers, and both his sons also own small bison herds. He has watched farming and ranching get more difficult over his lifetime, but loves his work. “Animal agriculture is majestic,” he said.

He promotes climate-friendly practices through pasture rotation, which requires fewer inputs, and lower transportation costs because 95 percent of his customers are within a one-hour drive of Denver.

Colorado Bison raised by Rex Moore (Photo Courtesy of Rex Moore)
Colorado Bison raised by Rex Moore. (Photo courtesy of Rex Moore)

He also believes transparency is important, and wants customers to know the specifics of how he cares for the bison in a way that is friendly to both climate and animal welfare.

To that point, he has hosted two “Lunch with the Bison” events, bringing restaurant chefs and their family members directly to the pasture to both eat bison burgers and learn how he raises his herd of between 200-300 bison.

“Local food production is not a fad,” he says. “It’s not going away.”

  • Rex Moore with the Colorado bison he raises (Photo Courtesy of Rex Moore)
    Rex Moore with the Colorado bison he raises. (Photo courtesy of Rex Moore)

Back at the museum, Hartnett, a trained chef and avid gardener, has also implemented a comprehensive composting program and outlawed the use of plastic utensils or cups. “We want to be good stewards of the environment, and we want to give back to the community,” he said.

Like Kalb, he would like to see even more local food purchasing, in time. “The journey starts with one step,” he said, “and each step is a discovery.”