A blossoming program to end hunger in the Roaring Fork Valley has a million reasons to give thanks to a 13-year-old girl who got inspired by the effort.
Chandra Starr, a seventh-grader at St. Stephen’s Catholic School in Glenwood Springs, launched the Million Penny Project this week to raise money for El Jebel-based Growing Food Forward. The million pennies — $10,000 — will be used to build and maintain gardens this spring and summer and then harvest the bounty and distribute fresh, locally grown, organic produce to the hungry in the fall. The program feeds people from Parachute to Aspen.
“I tear up every time I tell people about it,” said Kim Wille, the founder and executive director of Growing Food Forward, formerly known as Plant a Row to End Hunger.
The circumstances behind Chandra’s discovery of organic produce are enough to make most people tear up. She and her mom, Kim Walker, were homeless for a brief time and living in a tent on a mountainside outside Glenwood Springs five years ago. They would ride their bicycles into Glenwood to catch a hot meal at the Extended Table soup kitchen and collect canned and boxed food at Lift-Up.
Walker said she got worried about Chandra’s health. She was overweight and showed symptoms of pre-diabetes. Walker researched the causes of diabetes and found that diet was a major culprit. The Lift-Up food was vital for them in their situation, but it was processed rather than fresh, she said, and their diet wasn’t great before they ended up homeless for a month. That spurred the mother and daughter to make drastic changes to their diets once their housing was secured. They made sure to include fresh vegetables, fruits and greens.
Chandra said the choice was simple — eat better foods, or take shots the rest of her life. It’s been easier to eat right because Walker works at Vitamin Cottage in Glenwood Springs. She has been there nearly six years, the past year as the produce manager.
The result of their improved diet is more energy, fewer stomach issues and better skin and hair. Kim said Chandra no longer shows signs of diabetes and has lost weight.
The idea of increasing access to fresh produce came about last fall when Chandra was brainstorming on causes she could raise money for to earn her Silver Award for Girl Scouts. At about the same time, Chandra did a school project about Plant a Row to End Hunger and was impressed by Wille’s efforts and dedication. It suddenly hit her that fighting hunger would be a great cause to support. Wille embraced the idea when Chandra approached her.
Chandra’s motivation is simple.
“People don’t get food with the nutrition they need,” she said.
To start the Million Penny Project, she has placed plastic containers at roughly 50 businesses in the Roaring Fork and Lower Colorado River valleys so far. The number grows each day. The collection will continue until April 3. Donations of pennies aren’t required. Any denomination is accepted, and Chandra will gladly contribute more than $10,000.
An updated list of locations for money jars will be posted at www.facebook.com/GrowingFoodForward.
In addition, schools throughout the valley have been approached about holding contests to raise money and get behind the effort to feed the hungry.
Chandra said $75 had been contributed to the Million Penny Project as of late Monday. Her efforts will go beyond collecting money. She said she will plant a garden this summer and donate much of the harvest to Growing Food Forward. Her eyes sparkled when she discussed plans to plant radishes, carrots, peas and lettuce.
Growing Food Forward enlists a small army of growers to help with its mission. Some grow food specifically for the project in one of the plots provided around the valley, such as one in the Glenwood Springs Community Garden, according to Wille. Other gardeners donate a portion of their bounty from their gardens. Growing Food Forward contributes seeds to people who grow food for the effort. Last year, seeds were provided for 200 gardens, according to Wille.
The fruits, vegetables and greens are delivered directly to the doorsteps of people who sign up, Wille said. Some people in need are too embarrassed to be seen going to a food pantry, she said. However, the effort to get fresh produce to those in need will get a boost this year when Lift-Up will distribute it for the first time, she said.
Wille said the help of 13-year-old Chandra has been a big boost in the fight against hunger in the valley. She said adults have told her that it is an inspiration to them to see a 13-year-old engaged in the effort.
“The coolest thing about all of it is it doesn’t know politics,” Wille said. It’s a cause that appeals to everyone.
Chandra said she has encountered very little skepticism among schoolmates. Most are encouraging her effort. A handful question if she really can collect the million pennies.
Chandra’s legacy will last beyond the Million Penny Project. A new learning garden at the PAC3 building in Carbondale will be known as Chandra’s Garden.