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'We Are A Desert': Community Builds Urban Farm

By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – The cold weather couldn't keep supporters and neighbors of the Montbello Urban Farm from touring their snow-covered garden Monday.

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The community welcomed "Gangsta Gardener" Ron Finley from Los Angeles to celebrate the progress they have made as a neighborhood.

"It's beautiful, I mean the snow, it's beautiful," said Finley after touring the garden, "It's a Winter Wonderland."

Finley gained nationwide recognition for planting fruits and vegetables in a small plot outside of his home in 2010.

He had to convince city leaders what he was doing was necessary and get policies changed in order to make that curb strip of dirt he turned into a garden legal.

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"I got tired of leaving my neighborhood to buy food," he explained to CBS4. "There are thousands and thousands of people in my neighborhood, why I can't we have healthy food?"

He uses his story and his title to put a new twist on a term that is often associated with negative activities in neighborhoods like the one he lives in.

Along the way, he is trying to show children and young adults that the true "OG" is the original gardener of this planet.

"I wanted to put a positive spin on gangsta," Finley said. "There's nobody more gangsta than mother nature."

The success he saw is similar to what neighbors have accomplished at the Urban Farm located on 4879 Crown Blvd. in Denver.

Neighbors turned an open field covered in trash on the property of the United Church of Montbello into a growing garden.

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"We believe that kids are the change agent," said Donna Garnett of the Montbello Organizing Committee. "They begin to teach their parents, grandparents, and their siblings about healthier food."

The garden produces thousands of pounds of fresh food for the community but it is also a way to educate everyone around it about how to grow healthy food and create nutritious meals.

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"It's a symbol of unity, it's a symbol of creating a solution," said Gabriel Guillaume, president & CEO of LiveWell Colorado. "It's symbol of we can depend on one another."

LiveWell Colorado brought Finley to Denver for one of their fundraisers this week. The organization supports projects like the Urban Farm and leaders wanted to give neighbors the chance to spend time with Finley while he was in town.

"I want to see my neighborhoods healthy just like any other neighborhood can be," said Finley.

Grocery stores are several miles away from some residents in Montbello and some do not have access to a car, this makes it difficult to get the quality ingredients they want for a healthy meal.

"It is a community that is geographically sort of boxed in," said Khadija Haynes, another member of the Montbello Organizing Committee. "And in that box, we are a desert."

Montbello is a federally-designated food desert, according to Garnett.

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Finley says that term doesn't properly reflect the challenges of living so far from fresh produce. He says "food prison" is a better term because the characteristics of these neighborhoods often confine you to that part of town with businesses and stores that do not encourage healthy diets.

"A lot of people in this community don't have access to healthy, nutritious food," Haynes added.

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The Urban Farm has turned around what would have been an otherwise unused space in the past four years.

The church and organizing committee have worked with other non-profits to make it both a resource and tool to feed and educate more of the community. Their focus is children in urban settings and improving their understanding of growing food.

"The beginning of every society, every great society is health," said Haynes.

Finley said it's encouraging to see what the Montbello neighborhood is doing for its community.

He hopes more people can learn from his example and these farmers practicing the same type of gardening. A technique that not only feeds the body but also the mind.

"All it takes is one person to start a movement and people will join you if it's positive," he said. "That one person can change the world."

Ron Finley is scheduled to speak on Tuesday at the LiveWell Colorado's Engage in the Change Luncheon.

LINK: Montbello Organizing Committee | "Gangsta Gardener of LA" Ron Finley

Shawn Chitnis reports for CBS4 News at 10 on weekends and CBS4 News at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. throughout the week. Email him story ideas at and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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