Lush and fragrant, the vibrant green growth in the colorful containers is, literally and figuratively, a natural attraction.
“We have six different kinds of basil here,” announced Deric Stowell to a handful of dignitaries and notables, led by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. “And that includes Thai basil.“
It was a revelation that immediately piqued the senator’s interest.
“Where’s the Thai basil,?” Bennet asked as Stowell, the volunteer caretaker for this Central Plaza edible landscape, directed him to the distinctive herb.
“I could have used some of that last weekend,” Bennet said.
Stowell went on to announce that he recently harvested three pounds of basil, which he donated to a Mexican food restaurant a few doors down from the plaza.
“And we also encourage people to come by and pick the vegetables,” offered Mayor Nick Gradisar.
“And they do that,?” Bennet replied.
“Oh yes,” Stowell said. “And I love to see when that happens.”
As part of a stop in Pueblo Friday, the Colorado Democratic senator was treated to a tour of edible landscapes in Central Plaza and Sisters Cities Park as part of an update of the work being done by the Pueblo Food Project.
It was Bennet's support that helped the project get off the ground more than a year ago. And since that time, the joint city-county venture, under the direction of Monique Marez, has successfully worked to bolster food accessibility and economic development for the Pueblo food system.
In welcoming Bennet to Sister Cities Park, Pueblo County Commissioner Chris Wiseman thanked the senator for his support of the Pueblo Food Project.
“We’ve seen a change in agriculture over the years, from large farm operations to more and more people wanting to know where their food comes from,” Wiseman said. “I thought it was really important, when you offered this opportunity, to move in that direction.
“So we appreciate what you’ve done here.”
The edible landscapes that occupy the plaza and park, as well as Mineral Palace Park, serve to increase awareness of the origin, and appearance, of healthy food while adding to the beauty of public spaces.
These foodscapes, the senator learned, are but a portion of the work being undertaken by project leaders to increase the availability of food sources in Pueblo County.
“We’ve taken remarkable steps, I think, in making food accessible to people who otherwise might not have it during these pandemic times,” Gradisar told Bennet.
As the entourage moved from City Sisters Park through the Downtown, Marez presented Bennet with a more in-depth look at the project and its mission. The presentation, like the visits to the foodscapes, elicited a series of questions from the senator.
“So what’s your ambition for the food project when we’re built out,?” Bennet asked Marez.
“A primary goal is that every resident of Pueblo County has convenient access to healthy, nutritious and affordable food they enjoy,” Marez replied.
At Solar Roast Coffee, the aroma of sun-roasted beans, like the Thai basil, garnered Bennet’s attention.
"Boy, that smells good,“ the senator said.
From owner Michael Hartkop, Bennet learned of the unique solar-powered roasting process that provides the always expanding business with its name.
“And you’re the only one in the world doing this,?” Bennet asked Hartkop.
“Well, there is a company in South Africa that found out what we were doing and they built a very similar setup,” Hartkop replied.
“So you were the first one in the world,” Bennet said.
The senator was equally as impressed with Hartkop’s business acumen as he was the work of the Pueblo Food Project.
“I think it’s really, really exciting,” Bennet said of the project. “We are living in a time when people want to know where their food comes from, in a time when people are worried about the safety of the supply chain.
“And I’ve always believed, as a member of the agriculture committee for the last decade, that the most important thing we can do for food producers is to get the production closer to home.”
With a nod to the edible landscapes, Bennet said the project is helping to address another important objective.
“We need people in this country to eat better,” he said. “That’s a fundamental health care issue we confront as a nation.”
Bennet’s visit to Pueblo comes a few days after he introduced new legislation to dramatically improve how rural communities can secure federal support to develop new projects and invest in their infrastructure.
The Reforming, Expanding, and Simplifying Investment for Local Infrastructure to Enhance our Neighborhoods and Towns (RESILIENT) Act empowers rural communities to upgrade their infrastructure by expanding technical assistance, strengthening local capacity, and improving access to federal funding.
“It’s unfair to ask every single rural county to come up with their own ideas of how to approach the federal government for grant money,” Bennet said. “Instead, we should allow people to come together in a consortia that spreads the cost of applying for the grants.”
The Pueblo Food Project’s recent food access survey received almost 1,000 responses. On Aug. 13, the project will host a free webinar for anyone interested in the survey results. More information can be found at pueblofoodproject.org
Chieftain reporter Jon Pompia can be reached by email at email@example.com or at twitter.com/jpompia. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the Chieftain at chieftain.com/subscribenow