GrowHaus is a resource for healthy, close food in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Colorado
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The GrowHaus is located at 4751 York Street, Denver, CO 80216.
The Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in Denver is one of the poorest in the state. More than 6,500 people live there and more than 25 percent of them live in poverty. About a third of the population are children.
The neighborhood, located around and to the northeast of the National Western Complex and Denver Coliseum, is also a food desert, meaning there’s a distinct lack of fresh, healthy food available for the residents. For many, who rely on public transportation, the nearest grocery store is several bus routes away.
The GrowHaus, a warehouse-style building nestled between a dog chow factory, a steel mill, a railroad and a mobile home park, is working to make food security a reality to the neighborhood. Located at almost the exact center of the neighborhood and covered in splashy murals of vegetables, sunrises and Cesar Chavez, The GrowHaus is opening the doors to health for a largely minority-based community that otherwise would be left in the dust of development.
The GrowHaus has three areas of operation – food production, distribution and education. In each of these areas, the end result is nutritious food going into the community and creating a healthier, more equitable result for the residents of Elyria-Swansea.
“There’s not a grocery store within a mile of the community who our market served in 2016,” said Kate Farley, aquaponics farm manager. In 2016, the market served 3,400 local shoppers.
The produce in The GrowHaus store largely come from sources other than the farms housed at The GrowHaus — a hydroponics farm, an aquaponics farm and several other small-scale ag operations. The hydroponics farm holds 5,000 square feet of growing space and produces about 1,200 plants per week, and the aquaponics farm is about 3,200 square feet that produces nearly 1,000 plants per week, as well as cultivates fresh fish. The GrowHaus is also home to a micro mushroom farm, chickens and more.
Some of the products from these farms go straight into the market or into other community-based efforts, such as a weekly cooking class, food boxes or home deliveries for those with limited mobility, and some are sold to other area markets or restaurants to help support the organization’s operations.
In the market, a three-tier pricing system allows community members to access food at the most affordable prices. The market also accepts benefits from the Supplemental Nutrion Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. It also participates in the Double Up Food Bucks program, which allows SNAP participants to purchase double the produce with their benefits.
In each of the farms at The GrowHaus, community members have the chance to learn about different agricultural styles and purchase fresh, locally grown items. That’s so The GrowHaus isn’t just filling a hole in the community, but helping mend it by inspiring future generations to become involved in food cultivation.
“It’s one of the lowest income neighborhoods in Denver, but you know, the community also has a very rich food culture,” Farley said. “So The GrowHaus always says that we want to address food security using food as the answer.”
One of the ways the organization does this is through a fully bilingual program. All items are labeled in both English and Spanish, and many of the programs at The GrowHaus, such as a cooking class called Cosechando Salud, or Harvesting Health, incorporate many culturally appropriate recipes into the curriculum. The GrowHaus also offers additional gardening and cooking classes for children, teens and adults in the community. To date in 2017, these courses have served more than 1,200 students.
Laura Molina, the market coordinator at The GrowHaus, lives three blocks from the organization. She used to attend cooking classes there, and believes the resources offered by The GrowHaus are vital to the community. She talks to her customers — her neighbors — and they tell her they have to travel 2 miles to the nearest supermarket. The only options within walking distance besides The GrowHaus are convenience stores, and they often don’t have many healthy options.
“I love (The GrowHaus). It’s like a second home,” she said. She tries to spread that feeling of welcome to all the customers who come through the brightly painted doors. “I like to let my community know we have healthy food and resources for them.”
Molina said those resources don’t stop with kale or tomatoes. She said she and the other employees at The GrowHaus work to be as knowledgeable as possible about the issues their customers are facing. That includes being ready to help them find support during a massive construction project on Interstate 70, slated to last several years, which will likely displace and further disadvantage some residents. According to a Denver Post article in January, the total reconfiguring of I-70 will mean the destruction of 56 homes and 17 businesses, the vast majority of which are in Elyria-Swansea.
“We think there are very serious problems with this project, from the pollution and environmental (standpoints) to civil rights, and then just as far as our vision as a metropolitan area,” Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, said to The Denver Post. “We just think this is the wrong way to go.”
Plastic signs in many of the yards in Elyria-Swansea urge action against the project. Though The GrowHaus itself won’t be impacted by the construction, Farley said the community will be. Molina said many children in the area already suffer from health problems, like asthma, due to pollution. An EPA study showed Elyria-Swansea is the most polluted zip code in Colorado, as well as an area of marked low incomes, low education rates and low employment levels.
All of the concern about health and home reinforces why The GrowHaus wants its mission and its services to be better known within and outside the Elyria-Swansea community, Molina said. She and her coworkers keep a list of housing resources handy for their customers. They help refer them to places they can get help. And most of all, they help ensure that no matter what other changes are happening, they have food on the table. ❖
— Work is a freelance writer from Lakewood, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @nikkidoeswork.
Note: This story was updated July 24, 2017