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Food access—or rather, inaccess—is a longstanding problem in Sun Valley. The new home to Meow Wolf Denver has been described as both a food desert and food swamp, similar ideas that refer to, respectively, lack of easy access to a large grocery store and disproportionate numbers of fast food or convenience stores in comparison to healthy food establishments.
Right now, the closest major grocery store to the neighborhood is a King Soopers on Speer Boulevard and 13th Avenue, about 1.6 miles from the heart of Sun Valley—a five-minute drive if you have a car, an 18-minute bus ride, or a 30-minute walk across busy streets, railroad tracks, and under I-25.
But starting November 2, residents will be able to find fresh, affordable food much closer to home, thanks to the opening of Decatur Fresh, a new grocery store on 996 Decatur Street.
Run by Denver Housing Authority’s Youth Employment Academy (YEA), the store occupies the ground-floor commercial space of Gateway South. It’s one of two mixed-income residential buildings that Denver Housing Authority (DHA) completed earlier this year as part of the first of its four-phase Sun Valley redevelopment project. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, DHA’s efforts include replacing 333 public housing units with more than 800 mixed-income units.
With Decatur Fresh, DHA is extending the project beyond housing. “It’s the only grocery store I know of ever being opened up by a housing authority,” says David Nisivoccia, executive director of DHA. “We’re rather excited about not only the buildings that will house people, but the holistic approach in which we want to treat people with grace and dignity, to provide them a firm foundation to meet the aspirational goals for them and their children.”
According to Annie Hancock, development program manager at DHA, Decatur Fresh is an “1,800-square-foot, international, affordable, and fresh grocery store that’s community-driven and resident-led. … It’s both a job training opportunity, employment for the neighborhood, and bringing fresh produce.”
The store also continues work DHA started in 2019 with its Grow Garden on the South Platte River. Cultivated by Denver Botanic Gardens, the garden grows about 4,000 pounds of produce each year, which is sold at a neighborhood farmer’s market in the summer and distributed through the food pantry at Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center.
Glenn Harper, who runs Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center, has seen firsthand the neighborhood’s need for healthy, accessible food. In 2014, when he opened the Kitchen, there were only two places to purchase food in Sun Valley: 7-Eleven and Family Dollar, the latter of which has since relocated.
Harper began offering free cooking classes for kids at the kitchen, and in 2016, started a food pantry with Denver Food Rescue (DFR). Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, residents can come to the Kitchen and receive free food, including hot meals made by Harper and participants in the Kitchen’s youth employment program. “Our food pantry has consumed the majority of our energy over the last year and a half as needs have increased,” Harper says.
According to numbers from DFR, which tracks total participants in its 22 no-cost grocery programs across the city, the Kitchen provided food to 445 individuals in the first quarter of 2021, compared to 339 in the same period last year. Citywide, DFR has nearly doubled the total number of people it serves since before the pandemic, from 4,800 between January and March of last year, to 7,096 in the second quarter of 2020, and 9,400 in the second quarter of this year.
“I can say anecdotally the zip code, 80204, where Sun Valley is, and then 80219, which is Westwood, are by far where we get the most requests for food, at least in this past year,” says Jamie Anderson, program director for DFR.
Though exacerbated by the pandemic, food insecurity is by no means new to Sun Valley or Denver or Colorado. Pre-pandemic, one in eight Denverites experienced food insecurity, according to the Colorado Health Institute (CHI). Colorado also had the 44th lowest rate in the country for enrolling eligible individuals in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Recent data from CHI shows a decrease in food insecurity since 2019, but that might be influenced by better food pantry access due to local and nationwide efforts in the wake of the pandemic. Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger has seen hunger rates go as high as one in three Coloradans over the past year.
“The problem has gotten much bigger,” says Erin Ulric, implementation director at Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger. “Hunger isn’t a standalone issue for families. It comes with housing insecurity, it comes with systemic racism, it comes with low wages, it comes with unemployment.”
Access to food requires both nearby grocery stores and the means to purchase those groceries. That’s why affordability is a key priority for Decatur Fresh.
As a social enterprise, the grocery store isn’t primarily focused on profit. It’s seeking grant dollars to offset overhead costs and keep prices low. Already, Decatur Fresh has received a Healthy Food for Denver Kids grant to fund a weekend healthy snacks program for youth 18 and under. The store also accepts SNAP benefits.
To better serve the diverse population of Sun Valley (20 percent of residents, according to 2017 data, are foreign-born), Decatur Fresh is stocking cultural food and ingredients on its shelves, along with creating educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for Sun Valley residents. In addition to a customer service academy for adults and youth, the store will offer up to 15 paid internships each year to help young residents develop job skills. Also in the works? A community corner featuring goods made by Sun Valley residents, as well as opportunities to sell food products made in the commercial kitchen at YEA’s Osage Cafe.
These new avenues may create a pipeline of potential participants for DHA’s planned food and business incubator, which is part of the third phase of the Sun Valley development project slated for completion in late 2023 or early 2024.
“We want to make sure what we have in the store reflects who this population is,” Hancock says, “and not just through the food, but also through the opportunity to sell items or food within the store.”