Aspen embraces early Thanksgiving feast |

Aspen embraces early Thanksgiving feast

Chadwick Bowman
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Ever had to feed 1,000 people at your Thanksgiving dinner?

Aspen TREE, or Together Regenerating the Environment Through Education, is taking on the challenge of not only feeding that many people but also feeding them with fresh, organic food grown mostly right here in the Roaring Fork Valley and doing it at no cost to the diners.

Eden Vardy, one of the organization’s founders, has been putting on the yearly Early Bird Community Dinner at Aspen High School for four years. Organizers say the ultimate goal is to show that community members have access to local and completely organic foods.

Vardy grew up in Aspen, studied food systems at Washington state’s Evergreen State College and earned a master’s in integrated eco-social design from the Web-based Gaia University.

Vardy said he is proud that each year the dinner, which starts at 5 p.m. Tuesday, has grown bigger and feeds more people. It started with about 150 the first year and served about 700 diners last year.

Organizers are expecting help from around 120 volunteers from the valley, including six professional chefs, and as many as 200 may show up to volunteer on the day of the meal.

The program’s overarching goal is to inspire sustainability by taking on the challenges with positive, tangible change. Aspen TREE holds various summer camps for children ages 1 to 14, and it partners with other organizations such as Cozy Point Ranch and Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Vardy is also teaching a permaculture design course at Aspen High School that allows students to earn a certificate in the subject at the end of the semester. He said they can earn extra credit in the class for volunteering at the meal.

Aspen TREE also assists residents in how to build and manage home gardens and is planning on developing a four-season community greenhouse. A demonstration site has been put in place at Cozy Point and the program is waiting on the final grants, which would allow them to build the infrastructure to make it a year-round facility.

The nonprofit program will pay for the dinner with a silent auction featuring items from local restaurants and artisan shops as well as coupons for home-gardening classes offered by Aspen TREE.

Vardy said that the program’s budget for feeding 1,000 people will be around $3,000, which will cover the full market price of the completely organic food. Organizers hope to demonstrate that by being resourceful, people can eat organically for cheap.

Vardy said the community has helped prop up the program in various ways. Bakeries have been donating pastries every day to feed volunteers working in preparation for the event. In years past, Aspen TREE would provide food for volunteers, but all of this year’s volunteer food was donated.

“The support has been amazing,” Vardy said. “Historically we’ve almost had to pay as much just to feed the volunteers as we do for the meal. The restaurants and bakeries have just been so supportive.”

All of the meat, root vegetables, herbs and dairy products for the large dinners are farmed in the Roaring Fork Valley. This year, organizers, with the help of their young campers, raised their own turkeys in a completely organic fashion.

“We raised the turkey ourselves whereas in the past, we bought them from local farmers,” Vardy said. “The kids in our kids programs at Cozy Point Ranch assisted in raising these turkeys and most likely saw them when they were living.”

Vardy has dedicated much of his time to the program and even met his wife, River, at the first community meal. Together they have an infant son, Bija.

The meal aims to raise awareness about local farmers and local food, which Vardy said people are becoming more aware of every day. He said government leaders are also taking on the task.

“I don’t think there’s quite enough food in the Roaring Fork Valley for everyone to eat locally, but the number of farmers is growing fast,” he said. “And part of it is the city and county are starting to really look at it seriously and support it.”