In early March, the GrowHaus discovered that its building was unsound, and the nonprofit had to close its greenhouse, offices, classrooms and neighborhood market at 4751 York Street. But since then, the organization dedicated to filling a food void in the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods has been busier than ever.
"Since the COVID outbreak in mid-March, we have pivoted our focus to two big efforts," says GrowHaus executive director Kayla Birdsong. "One is maybe the biggest food-access project we've ever taken on."
The GrowHaus's mission has always involved growing food, educating the neighborhood about healthy shopping and eating, and providing good, locally grown food at reasonable prices. But when much of Colorado's economy shut down, many of the organization's neighbors lost their jobs or were unable to return to work. So the GrowHaus fired up a rapid-response food delivery system to get free grocery boxes to those in need. "We've been purchasing dry goods like rice, beans and oatmeal and receiving donations of produce, and delivering to anyone in the neighborhood who signs up," Birdsong notes.
So far, more than 530 households have signed up, and the GrowHaus is delivering food boxes to them every seven to ten days. In just under three months, that's added up to 100,000 meals divided among 2,500 individuals. "We have actually added staff," Birdsong says, "because this is a very labor-intensive process."
Without its own building, the organization has been relying on Bondadosa for delivery and Food Maven for warehouse space, where the grocery boxes are being packed. But now, Birdsong says, the GrowHaus has found a warehouse it will be leasing to serve as a food distribution center.
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As part of its neighborhood efforts, the GrowHaus has also started a community outreach program to find out what additional help is required by families who have signed up for the grocery boxes. Many have said that they need rent, mortgage or utilities assistance, Birdsong says, but they're often not aware of how to get reductions or deferrals for those monthly bills. "The feedback is primarily that people are relieved that they can feed their families and use the money that would have been spent on food to pay their bills," she explains, adding that the grocery-box program will continue for as long as the community continues to ask for it.
The GrowHaus is also increasing its focus on CSA-style food boxes that it sells to customers all over Denver. The organization sources eggs and bread locally, and also uses local produce as much as possible for the program. Boxes run about $30 each (or $20 for just produce, and residents within the 80216 zip code get a discount), and you can also purchase boxes to donate to someone else. Before the pandemic, the GrowHaus sold about 200 boxes a week, but in the last week of May, 1,350 boxes were sold. "All of that money is going back into our other missions," Birdsong says.
Donations have been up, too, she points out, with more than 1,000 one-time donations over the past three months and more than 100 new donors signing up for the Tambien monthly giving program, which now totals more than 500 members.
A permanent facility for the GrowHaus may be years away, since it will require time and money to plan and execute, whether the organization rebuilds on its current property or finds a new home in the area. "The biggest thing is that this has been a chance to recommit to the neighborhood," Birdsong concludes. "Just seeing us in the neighborhood lets people know that we're not going anywhere. There's a renewed sense of purpose for us."