Since launching at a String Cheese Incident show, at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium in 2002, Boulder-based nonprofit Conscious Alliance has taken massive steps toward ending hunger in underserved communities on a national level. Founded by music fans looking to give back, the organization known for its “Art that Feeds” food drives that take place at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, festivals and concerts throughout the nation, has partnered with Boulder eateries Arcana and Hosea Rosenberg’s Blackbelly to offer thousands of meals to those most in need during COVID-19.
With the closures of schools due to coronavirus, Conscious Alliance saw an opportunity to help the large number of children that rely on free or discounted school meals stay fed. Pre-pandemic, CA already provided healthy sustenance and snacks to more than 40 schools. This current initiative — that has received financial support from celebrity chef and restaurateur José Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen — is an offshoot of CA’s dedication to try to reverse the statistic of one in seven children not having reliable access to food.
From establishing school and home garden initiatives on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to keeping community pantries throughout the country stocked, Conscious Alliance continues to creatively combat food insecurity. The group’s vibrant artist-made concert posters, that commemorate shows by My Morning Jacket, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Trey Anastasio Band, Widespread Panic and many more, are almost as iconic as the performances themselves.
We caught up with executive director Justin Levy to find out about CA’s latest venture, what virtual entertainment offerings the organization has fostered during the pandemic and what he’ll miss most about not manning the Conscious Alliance booth at many of this summer’s now-canceled live music events.
Daily Camera: I love that among this global health scare Conscious Alliance has decided to step in and help the large number of students who rely on a free/reduced school meals. What inspired you to want to take action?
Justin Levy: Our mission at Conscious Alliance is to support communities in crisis through hunger relief and youth empowerment. We accomplish this by working with bands, artists, food makers, schools, food pantries and other community organizations to get food directly into the hands of kiddos who need it most. The pandemic hasn’t changed this mission, but we have scaled up to meet the growing need for increased food assistance. In anticipation of schools closing and students not having access to the free breakfast and lunch programs, we worked with teachers during the week of March 9 to provide their students in need with groceries from our natural food partners. We’ve continued to work with our community to identify points of needs as well as families who need support.
DC: What prompted you to want to join forces with José Andrés and area restaurants? How did Conscious Alliance become involved?
JL: Immediately following the announcement of school cancellations, one of our board members, Elliott Toan, began offering free meals to families in need through his restaurant, Arcana. Meanwhile, we work with a group of teachers who are very passionate about ensuring their students are fed; prior to COVID, they would pick up meals and snacks from Conscious Alliance to distribute to those families. So it was an easy connection, I reached out to see if the teachers wanted to deliver Arcana meals to the homes of their students at risk of food instability. The teachers love it because they miss their students and this gives an important way to stay connected while also providing critical support to the family. Through a music-industry connection, Chef Andrés saw what we were doing, and it’s essentially the same model he uses with the World Central Kitchen. With support from World Central Kitchen, we were able to expand to also include Blackbelly. Blackbelly has been another great supporter of Conscious Alliance, so it was a perfect fit. Now with the support of Arcana and Blackbelly restaurants, together we are providing 1,500 meals a week to families throughout Boulder and Denver.
DC: How many meals have you distributed to date and are there any upcoming pick-up locations we should be aware of?
JL: The lifetime of the organization, over 5 million. Since March, over 500,000. With World Central Kitchen, 3,100. Wednesday, May 13 at Wyatt Academy in Denver at 10:30 a.m., we will be distributing food. We are working with Boulder Valley School District’s distributions — pick up info is best gained on district’s page — and Columbine Elementary, Fireside Elementary and Louisville Elementary for the Arcana meals.
DC: I imagine with concerts and festivals being canceled, CA is looking for new ways to make a difference. Are there any current other initiatives that should be on our radar?
JL: Because of the postponement of concerts and festivals, we are likely canceling as many as 100 of our “Art That Feeds” food drives as well as benefit concerts that help to feed communities and fund Conscious Alliance. One of my favorite creative responses has been Live Lesson Masters: “Community That Feeds” concert series benefiting Conscious Alliance. We also partnered with Bassnectar to auction off art via Instagram benefiting his Be Interactive nonprofit organization as well as Conscious Alliance. We are doing a few “Art That Feeds” poster releases with artists such as Chris Dyer, David Hale and more. Most recently, we had a #GivingTuesdayNow auction for memorabilia and artwork — separate from our work with Be Interactive.
DC: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of providing much-needed meals during this pandemic?
JL: Seeing the community come together to support kiddos and families in need. The teachers showing up at elementary kids’ door with food, the partnerships that just deepened and developed … bands, brands and individuals who are making our work possible. It’s amazing and we are grateful for every one of them.
DC: Lastly, as a music fan, I imagine not being able to attend shows and host food drives at Red Rocks this summer is a major bummer. What are you planning to do to fill that void? Have you tuned into any memorable livestreams lately?
JL: We are all saddened to hear about many concerts being canceled due to COVID-19. I will miss seeing the thousands of fans who visit the Conscious Alliance booth to show their support and grab a poster, in turn generating hundreds of thousands of meals for community members nationwide. In the interim, we’ve hosted community benefit concerts with artists like Trevor Hall and David Phipps of STS9, which have been a highlight for me. The String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee and the Disco Biscuits have also done amazing work releasing never-before-seen shows and music with proceeds going to Conscious Alliance.