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Civic inspirations

Bringing food-sharing and community together in a box.

By Elizabeth Parmelee

April 23, 2019

Have you ever seen a Little Free Library that a neighbor placed in their front yard to inspire others to share books? It’s an amazing idea that started with one person and has spread to more than 90 countries. Just a decade later, upward of 80,000 Little Free Libraries can be found everywhere from Argentina to Mongolia to Denver to South Africa. Through collaboration with Denver Botanic Gardens and community partners in our back yard, Metropolitan State University of Denver is looking to make a similar idea a success.

Prototype of blue Veggie Box outside La Alma Recreation CenterA conversation last fall with a Denver Botanic Gardens employee inspired Stella Yu, a resident of the La Alma-Lincoln Park neighborhood and longtime MSU Denver supporter, to ask, “What if there were a Little Free Library for food?”

Yu, an avid backyard gardener and supporter of the Mariposa Community Garden, is familiar with the seasonal dilemma of bountiful zucchini and wanted to find a way to offer excess food to neighbors and others in need. Thus began the idea of the Veggie Box, a project spanning three academic departments, numerous community organizations and multiple MSU Denver neighbors.

Students in Assistant Professor Amy Kern’s Advanced Industrial Design Studio class have developed a variety of potential models for an outdoor Veggie Box, a container for collecting, preserving and sharing excess produce. Two of the designs will be further developed and prototyped by Kern’s students this summer. One design will be a simple do-it-yourself model that backyard gardeners can build at minimal cost. A larger, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant model that includes solar-powered refrigeration as well as space for gardeners and community members to share news will be designed for use in community gardens.

Additionally, students Samantha Donen and Tucker McKinzie will intern this fall with Denver Botanic Gardens to build the first full-size models of their “Community Veggie Box.” The two will also join Kern and Yvonne Garcia, Denver Botanic Gardens’ community-relations manager, in presenting their work at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ 2019 Civic Learning and Democratic Education Conference in June.

Simultaneously, communication-design students in Professor Lisa Abendroth’s Design in Public Space class are picking up where the Industrial Design students left off, with environmental graphic design and placemaking communications to enhance the effectiveness of the box. Pre-professional Seminar in Nutrition and Dietetics students, taught by Professor Melissa Masters, Ph.D., will enhance the project by providing nutrition consulting. Masters’ students will develop information about the produce that is likely to be found in the box and how to prepare it for healthy, inexpensive meals.

With production and testing this summer, Veggie Boxes may start popping up as soon as the 2020 growing season. Could it possibly grow as far and wide as the Little Free Library? Why not? We know that food deserts, hunger and food insecurity are global concerns. Together with our community partners, we may have found one solution that builds community through sharing.

Interested in learning more? Contact Elizabeth Parmelee for more information.

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