Montbello has been a food desert since 2014, the year the Safeway moved out. Without a full-service grocery store, residents of this neighborhood in northeast Denver have had to drive or take the bus long distances to shop for all of their groceries in one location.
"A lot of my neighbors shop in Aurora and Stapleton to get their groceries. They're still spending those dollars. It's unfortunate that they’re not being spent in our community," says Chris Martinez, a longtime resident of Montbello.
Tired of waiting for a grocery store to come to Montbello, residents have decided to fix the problem themselves. And that's why a Montbello advocacy organization just placed a bid on some property where it plans to build the neighborhood's very own grocery store.
Since Safeway moved out, residents without access to cars have had to bus over to the western edge of Montbello, where there's a Walmart. There's also a Save-a-lot, which is on the other edge of the neighborhood in Parkfield. But neither of those stores offer a bakery, meat market and pharmacy all in the same place, staples in the vast majority of full-service grocery stores, the closest of which are in Aurora, Stapleton and Green Valley Ranch. From the heart of Montbello, residents without cars have to take two buses, an hour each way, to get to the King Soopers in Green Valley Ranch.
Some residents have settled for options near their homes, such as 7-Eleven and Family Dollar. But these stores lack fresh food options and often sell products that are full of unhealthy ingredients. Meanwhile, Montbello is grappling with high rates of childhood obesity, according to Denver City Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore, who represents District 11. "That’s not surprising. I think it’s a systemic outcome of not having walkable grocery stores in the district," says Gilmore.
Created in 2013, the Montbello Organizing Committee surveyed Montbello residents to see what issues they considered most pressing. Unsurprisingly, the lack of a nearby grocery store was the top concern on the list.
The first possible solution was to get a major grocery chain to come to Montbello. Gilmore has met with various chains in hopes that one would open a branch in Montbello. She even took store representatives on driving tours of her district to show them the "real Montbello" and dispel myths about the neighborhood. But the chains still weren't convinced that Montbello and the surrounding neighborhoods had enough population density to support a profitable grocery store. At least, that's what they told Gilmore, she says.
Once it became clear that chain grocery stores were not coming to Montbello anytime soon, residents reassessed their options. "We started thinking, how can we open up a grocery store ourselves?" says Martinez.
The trial period for this project came in the summer of 2017, when Montbello opened a small market selling fresh produce in the western part of the neighborhood. It was a hit, and the pilot returned for a second round this year.
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The Montbello Organizing Committee also started pitching its idea of opening its own grocery store in Montbello to various organizations. The committee's proposal gained traction, and grant money started pouring in from various groups, including the Kresge Foundation and the Colorado Health Foundation.
With this monetary backing, the committee decided to turn its plan into reality. Committee members wanted to find a piece of land that they could turn into a grocery store and cultural center; they eventually began including affordable housing as part of the project.
That plan is now one step closer to becoming reality with an offer out for the land, which committee members expect to finalize by early 2019. And Family Tree Market, the organization behind that initial fresh produce summer market in Montbello, has verbally committed to operating the grocery store.
Martinez is happy that his longtime neighborhood could finally get a full-service grocery store. "It'll be fabulous when we can bring those services to Montbello," he says. "It will be meeting a need for many folks who do not have transportation."