Grocery Store Hopes to Chip Away at Food Insecurity in Montbello

Save-A-Lot opened its first Montbello location on December 2, bringing fresh meats and produce to a USDA-designated food desert.
Save-A-Lot opened its first Montbello location on December 2, bringing fresh meats and produce to a USDA-designated food desert. Courtesy Colorado Enterprise Fund
A $10.5 million redevelopment project is breathing life into the Chambers Place Shopping Mall at the corner of Green Valley Ranch Boulevard and Chambers Road in Montbello. Much of the shopping center sat vacant for years after it lost its anchor tenants, including a Safeway, until John and Chris Leevers bought up three sites in 2015.

“That’s become our niche, to go into areas where the larger stores have vacated,” says John Leevers, president of Leevers Supermarkets Inc., which owns and operates the Colorado Save-A-Lot stores. Leevers is also a member of Mayor Michael Hancock’s food-access task force.

The crowning achievement of the redevelopment is a Save-A-Lot, a discount grocery store, which opened in the former Safeway space last month. The new grocery store is especially important to Montbello because of the area’s food insecurity. Five of the six census tracts that make up the Montbello neighborhood are considered food deserts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with at least one-third of residents living more than one mile away from the nearest supermarket. And at least one-fifth of Montbello residents live in poverty.

“We have a very heavy emphasis on fresh produce," Leevers says. "A significant part of our store space is dedicated to produce. And we have a full-scratch bakery in-store.”

While there’s no shortage of fast-food joints and convenient stores around Montbello, a food desert is defined by its lack of access to fresh produce, something that’s imperative for proper nutrition and good health. Leevers also set aside space for a 500-square-foot community room with a demonstration kitchen that will provide recipe classes and food education for residents.

In keeping with the community-health theme, Leevers opened a Planet Fitness next door to Save-A-Lot and has a DaVita dialysis center under construction at Chambers Place. A 16,000-square-foot storefront is still up for grabs in the shopping center, with the potential of attracting a clothing retailer, hardware store or fast-casual diner.

All Colorado Save-A-Lot stores fall under the umbrella of Leevers Supermarkets, an eighty-year-old company that was owned by three generations of Leevers before it became employee-owned five years ago. Employees over the age of 21 with at least one year of working at the store under their belts and an average of twenty work hours a week is given annual stock in the company.

“The employee-ownership model is unparalleled in its ability to create wealth for the people who work in the store. When people shop in that store, they’re supporting their community in a direct manner,” John says.

The redevelopment project came to life with the help of the Colorado Enterprise Fund, a nonprofit microlender, when it agreed to a $1 million loan — double its normal limit — through its CEF Healthy Foods Fund Loan Program to chip away at Denver’s food deserts. The loan program pools funding from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Treasury, the Colorado Health Foundation, and the Reinvestment Fund.

CEF also brought on two other financiers, the Colorado Trust and the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, who contributed $1 million and $1.5 million, respectively. Since 1976, CEF has provided more than $65 million in loans to more than 2,100 businesses in the state.

“A grocery store is so central to the community. I can totally relate to these guys because of my family history in the grocery business growing up [in Grand Junction],” says Ceyl Prinster, president and CEO of the Colorado Enterprise Fund. “This operator is so engaged with the community and is so committed to not just food, but overall health.”
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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
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