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Slow Money Entrepreneur of the Year Focuses on Food Justice

Revision International won the $50,000 Mamma Chia Slow Money Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the fourth Slow Money National Gathering this past April in Boulder, Colo., along with an additional $60,000 that was pledged May 1 during an Earthworm Angel investor meeting. Revision International, also called Revision, is a Denver-based nonprofit that works with low-income communities that often lack the access or the means to buy and eat healthy food. Revision helps people in these communities become self-sufficient and sustainable, using a resident-led approach that creates local talent, resources and wealth.

Over the past five years, Revision has helped more than 240 low-income families in southwest Denver to grow food in their yards by providing needed resources and technical assistance. This woven network of people and resources has established a community food system that is laying the foundation for future economic development.

David and Irma Gonzalez, shown in their front garden with their two sons, are part of Revision’s program to help low-income families increase access to healthy food by growing in their own yard.

Revision is also re-teaching 45 Somali Bantu refugee families how to grow food on a 1.5-acre farm in southwest Denver’s high desert environment. The Bantu, a religious and ethnic minority in Somalia, fled violent persecution in 1991. They spent 15 years in Kenyan refugee camps, unable to return to their country. In 2006, various agencies helped relocate this group to Denver.

While life in America offers many new opportunities for the Bantu, it also presents some significant challenges. The Bantu are traditional subsistence farmers; much of their culture is rooted in a deep connection to the earth and an ability to grow their own food. One of the most acute difficulties for the Bantu in the U.S. has been a lack of access to farmland. “When we dreamed of America, we thought that there would be land everywhere for farming,” says Omar, a Somali Bantu elder. “This is not the reality.”

Revision, with the backing of Slow Money, has helped the Bantu farm again, turning a vacant property into a thriving food source. For the first time in over two decades, the Bantu now are planting inner-city seeds that reconnect them to the ways of their ancestors, while cultivating a better future for their children.

The money from the Mamma Chia Entrepreneur of the Year Award is supporting these programs by helping Revision to form a cooperative that will aggregate, process, market and sell the surplus produce from these inner-city farms.

Members of the Somali Bantu community and promotoras from the Westwood neighborhood in 2012 on the future site of the Ubuntu Urban Farm.

Our total fundraising request during the National Gathering was $110,000. The day after Revision was awarded the $50,000 entrepreneur prize from Slow Money and the organic chia seed beverage company Mamma Chia, several investors from the group Earthworm Angels pledged an additional $60,000 to help Revision meet its total goal.

Shortly after the Slow Money gathering, Revision received notice that it had won a $300,000 grant through the USDA Community Food Projects Competitive Grant program. The grant money will help the cooperative build out a food hub and commercial kitchen facility and begin a feasibility study for a community-owned grocery store.

Members of the Somali Bantu community take a moment from planting seeds for their first crop in the U.S. to pose with Revision co-founders Joseph Teipel (far left) and Eric Kornacki (far right).

Collectively, the co-op will grow over 55,000 pounds of organic food this year, and hopes to double production by 2015. Through the cooperative model, each family becomes a member-owner of the business, so not only will they get paid for what they sell through the co-op, but they also will receive a share of the profits and govern the organization through a democratic process, in which each member gets one vote. Although it won’t be incorporated until the end of August, the co-op already has sold 44 CSA shares and is looking to begin building an educational kitchen and food storage facility.

Revision promotora Patricia Grado setting up Revision’s farm stand in southwest Denver. All of the food is grown by community members and priced on a sliding scale to help reach low-income families.

Revision creates self-sufficient communities by focusing on three main strategies:

1. Establish Community Food Systems: increasing neighborhood food production through backyard gardens and urban farms, and food distribution models that increase access and affordability to healthy food for all residents.

2. Resident Empowerment: empowering residents to become active in their community through leadership development and a train-the-trainer approach, and employing residents as community health workers, called promotoras.

3. Economic Development: growing a local food economy that creates good jobs that offer reasonable pay, increases economic opportunity for neighborhood enterprises and builds community wealth through cooperative business models.

We are so grateful to Slow Money, Mamma Chia and other investors for their generosity. We were humbled by their outpouring of support. Among the many other worthy entrepreneurs, ours was the only group to address food justice issues, so we view this award as a testimony to the values of Slow Money and the widespread belief that everyone deserves access to affordable healthy food.

With this funding, Revision will empower more than 250 families in low-income communities in Denver to become owners of a cooperative that produces healthy food and good, decent-paying jobs. We believe this will become the model for revolutionizing food deserts to become healthy, self-sufficient and thriving communities.

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Author bio: Eric Kornacki, the executive director of Revision International, focuses on issues of social justice, particularly at the intersection of economics, environment, health and food. Eric was selected as a fellow at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union in 2011–2012 for its Agriculture Fellowship Program, is a graduate of the National Farmers Union Beginning Farmer Institute, and serves as president of the Denver/Jefferson chapter of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Eric was appointed to the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council in 2010 by former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to develop policy recommendations to create a healthier and stronger local food system. In his spare time, Eric brews beer with his brother, and is slowly remodeling a 100-year-old house.

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