Denver’s Villa Park neighborhood isn’t very large, running just a mile long by a mile and a half wide between four of the city’s busiest arteries: West Colfax Avenue, Federal Boulevard, Sixth Avenue, and Sheridan Boulevard. Its hilly streets are filled with modest houses, bike paths, fast-food restaurants, a few dispensaries, and three 7-11s—but no full-service grocery stores.

This is where Esmeralda Gutierrez-Rivera lives, in a house with her dad, grandma, aunt, and younger brother. She’s one of about 60,000 Denver youth that reside in what’s known as a food desert, an area (with some income requirements) where most households are located at least half a mile from a grocery store. “I think there’s a mini market by my house,” she says, “but 7-11 we go to a lot if we’re running out of milk or eggs, even though it’s expensive.”

The petite 17-year-old doesn’t have time to think about getting to another neighborhood, just to cut down on grocery costs or improve her diet. Her schedule is packed with studying to pass her senior year classes; working for the Youth Leadership Team (read more about this project) and at the nonprofit Bridge Project, which offers tutoring to kids in public housing; serving as a mentor leader for the YESS Institute; and volunteering at Mi Casa Resource Center and in the pediatric department at Denver Health.

“Honestly for the last couple of days, eating has been the least of my worries,” she says. “I turn to snacks, unhealthy snacks.”

“I know we need sleep and food, but that’s hard,” she continues. “With 24 hours and seven days, it’s not enough time.”

Someday, Gutierrez-Rivera hopes to help kids figure out how to live healthier lifestyles through a job as a nurse practitioner, which is why she was interested in joining the YLT. The experience has given her insight into the complex factors, like food deserts, involved in youth health—and she hopes she can draw on that knowledge during her future career. As she says, “I want to be understanding.”