Op-Ed: Fighting for Food Justice in Denver Requires Organizations Like The GrowHaus

Meredith Slater
At the northernmost edge of Denver sit the sister communities of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. You have undoubtedly passed through these neighborhoods on your way to the mountains, as they are split by Denver’s two busiest highways, I-25 and I-70. You may recall the whiff of dog food emanating from the towering Purina factory that sits smack in the middle of Elyria-Swansea, about a half-mile from Swansea Elementary School. What you may have missed, though, were the neighbors outside talking to one another, kids riding their bicycles on the sidewalk, and an overwhelming sense of community.

In the heart of these neighborhoods, steps from the train tracks that cut through the area, is The GrowHaus, an organization committed to cultivating food justice. Housed in this historically working-class, primarily Latinx neighborhood, the GrowHaus engages community members in all levels of the organization to offer truly community-driven programming to promote food access. Focused on nourishment and overall wellness, the GrowHaus delivers healthy and affordable food to residents facing “food apartheid” (a term that many argue should replace “food desert,” because it captures the disproportionate impacts of access to healthy food owing to systematic discrimination against people of color).

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the GrowHaus had already been operating for years alongside the vibrant local community to offer resources and opportunities through youth programming, community outreach, adult education and food distribution. This work was integral, as there is not even one full-service grocery store for the 10,000 residents living in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. In this community, where the household income is about half of what it is in greater Denver and adults have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer compared to the rest of Denver, accessing healthy food is extremely challenging. This, alongside a host of other factors, has grave implications: A child’s life expectancy in Globeville is a staggering thirteen years less than that of a child a few miles down the road.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon the GrowHaus in 2018, when I was looking to get involved in the local food-justice movement. As a nonprofit professional who started my career with the U.S. branch of the United Nations World Food Program, I have always been driven by food access and hunger issues. My graduate studies in food systems furthered this enthusiasm, and my work with the international human rights organization ActionAid solidified my dedication not just to food access, but to food sovereignty. I was looking for a place where I could tie all those passions together, and I quickly learned that the GrowHaus was a perfect fit.
click to enlarge MEREDITH SLATER
Meredith Slater

The COVID-19 pandemic only further confirmed what I saw in the GrowHaus: rootedness, effectiveness and flexibility. Within weeks of the onset of the pandemic, the GrowHaus began receiving notes on its door from community members saying they didn’t have enough food. The organization quickly ran a community needs assessment, in which it found that 76 percent of households reported a decrease in income and that 83 percent reported only having enough food for one week or less. In a community where healthy food access was tenuous to begin with, the GrowHaus staff had their work cut out for them.

The GrowHaus staff hustled to pivot the organization’s programming, just as they learned that the building where it got its start in 2011 — beloved home to its aquaponics and hydroponics farms, mushroom cave, community market and education center — did not fully meet city requirements for stability and safety. On March 11, 2020, the day that COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the executive director of the GrowHaus sent a letter to supporters sharing the news that the building would have to be indefinitely closed.

It was a heartbreaking moment for the staff and community alike, and it would have been understandable for the organization to throw up its proverbial hands and close its doors. Instead, the small but mighty team doubled down and got to work. They transitioned the full efforts of the organization to getting food to community members as the pandemic raged. Since March 2020, the GrowHaus has delivered 740,000 no-cost meals, reaching 650 families with culturally appropriate, healthy food.

While this is a huge accomplishment that has made a tremendous difference for the community, the pandemic is far from over. According to government health records, in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, where air pollution levels are higher than anywhere else in the Denver metro region, there are also higher COVID-19 hospitalization rates. There have been about thirteen hospitalizations per 1,000 people in those neighborhoods, compared to only 1.4 hospitalizations per 1,000 people in Washington Park. The GrowHaus’s continued work of distributing 400 no-cost food boxes every week is more important than ever.

In order to involve neighbors from across Denver in this integral work, the GrowHaus runs a program called También, which means "also" or "too" in Spanish. It started with the idea that people across the city could come together to support healthy food access for all. The program asks people to pitch in what they can every month, whether that’s $10 or $100. The power of this program is that as an individual, a community and a whole city, we can make a profound collective impact. It’s through reliable and consistent support like this that the GrowHaus can plan for the future and continue its support of our resilient neighbors in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.

I couldn’t be prouder to align myself with the GrowHaus, and I hope that you’ll consider joining me in becoming a member of the GrowHaus’s También program and affirming the right to food justice for our neighbors across this great city.

Meredith Slater holds a master's of arts in Food Studies from New York University. She has lived, gardened and cooked in Colorado since 2014, and has volunteered and donated to the GrowHaus since 2018. She is director of Development at ActionAid USA, an international network building a just, equitable and sustainable world in solidarity with communities on the frontlines of poverty and injustice.

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