Español Search
Back to Stories

Bringing Food to a Food Desert is Tougher Than it Looks

Leer en español

Photo by Jess Kornacki/Re:Vision

By Kristin Jones

Barbara Gallegos, a mother and grandmother and The Colorado Trust’s receptionist, lives with her seven-year-old granddaughter Danni Rae in the Westwood neighborhood of Denver. She likes that the housing there is affordable, even as rents in much of the rest of the city have skyrocketed. And she appreciates that it’s a safe place for Danni Rae to go outside and play.

One thing she doesn’t like is the grocery store situation: There’s no place nearby to shop, so she drives 10 minutes to the King Soopers on Sheridan and Florida for her food.

“Even if it’s just milk or salt,” she says, “You have to get in your car and drive.”

With no local grocery stores, Westwood fits the definition of a food desert. An organization called Re:Vision is trying to change that with its plan to open the Westwood Food Cooperative, a store that would be owned and operated by members of the community. Re:Vision bought and cleaned up a former warehouse on Morrison Road to house the food co-op, and is raising money on Kickstarter with hopes of opening it next year. (Re:Vision is a Colorado Trust Health Equity Advocacy grantee. Re:Vision spokesperson Catherine Jaffee says The Trust and the Colorado Health Foundation are its largest funders at present.)

The idea of opening grocery stores in underserved areas sounds like a no-brainer. People have to eat, right? Gallegos points out that many people in her neighborhood—seniors, mothers with young children—don’t have cars, so getting to a grocery store several miles away is a real problem.

Previous efforts to bring food to food deserts around the country have had mixed success in actually changing what people eat. A study published in February looked at a neighborhood in the Bronx after the city subsidized a new supermarket there, and found little impact in terms of food availability or consumption.

Another study, published in April, found that the kinds of food people purchased had more to do with how much spending money they had, as well as their education level, rather than whether there was a grocery store nearby.

Re:Vision says their plan is different from most.

“We’re very quick to point out that access alone isn’t going to change the situation,” says Eric Kornacki, who founded and leads Re:Vision. “You could put a grocery store in the community and, as the study mentioned, it’s not going to change anything.”

What’s unique about the food co-op idea is that it’s built to fit the community’s needs, and will be owned by the community, says Kornacki. The organization’s feasibility study found that the Westwood neighborhood spends $16 million on food each year, largely in inexpensive corporate supermarkets outside of the neighborhood, but also in Westwood’s corner markets that sell staples at high mark-ups.

Kornacki says people in the neighborhood are already invested in the idea of high-quality organic food that’s locally grown. That’s because they’ve been growing it themselves for the past several years. Re:Vision has been working in the neighborhood since 2009, operating an ambitious home-gardening effort in Westwood in which area families are provided with seeds, plants and drip irrigation systems.

Paid staff from the neighborhood, called promotoras, visit the families twice a month to advise them on planting and tending their own front- and backyard gardens, and bring them together for community cooking classes. 400 families were served this year, Kornacki says.

The research on community gardening, while not extensive, is encouraging. A 2010 review of mostly qualitative studies found that community gardeners reported having more physical activity, better diets and improved mental health.

Dr. Jill Litt, a professor of environmental health at University of Colorado Denver, led a 2011 study of Denver neighborhoods. That study found that community gardeners ate 46 percent more fruits and vegetables than non-gardeners. Home gardeners also ate more fresh produce than non-gardeners, but not as much as people who worked in community gardens.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there suggesting strong correlations” between community gardening and the good health of the people who do it, says Litt. “It’s very suggestive that there’s truly a change happening that’s influential, that affects how they’re eating and how they see food.”

If there aren’t a lot of randomized, controlled studies of urban gardening—and there aren’t—that’s partly a funding issue. Litt says she has been trying without success to secure funding for a clinical trial on community gardens. “Folks in the room don’t want to spend a million dollars on a community-level study,” she says.

But across the globe, the reasons people cite for wanting to garden, and how they feel about it, seem to be repeated verbatim across scientific literature, says Litt.

“They’re doing it because they love it,” she says. People talk about needing a place to grow food, about being with nature, hearing the birds sing. “That may sound touchy feely, but there’s so much science that talks about why this is important for behavior change. It has to be tactile.”

It also helps when gardening is social, says Litt, pulling people into a healthy community that’s self-reinforcing.

That certainly seems to be happening in Westwood.

Matilde Garcia works as a promotora for Westwood’s gardening project. Originally from Durango, Mexico, Garcia grew up in a farming community; her father grew corn and squash. But that doesn’t mean that she knew how to run a backyard garden; she was trained for that.

“I love my job. It’s amazing,” says Garcia. She works with 46 different households in the community, helping them decide what to plant, and teaching them how to do it. Most people wouldn’t know how to do it without being taught, and they’re skeptical about growing anything at all in the Colorado soil until they see it done, Garcia adds: “This is something I really, really enjoy.”

She also notices her neighbors’ eating and exercise habits changing as they get involved in gardening and classes at the community kitchen.

“In my house, for example, we used to use one gallon for oil. Now we use less than one liter per month,” says Garcia. She has also started freezing and canning produce from the summer to eat in the winter.

As for the food co-op?

“It’s something we’re doing with the people,” says Garcia. “We’re doing it for us, and with the people.”

Gallegos is ready. She says she didn’t know about Re:Vision until The Trust contributed to it. And without a backyard, she doesn’t have much room for home gardening. But she’s so excited about a new grocery store in the area that she’s almost afraid to get her hopes up.

“I would absolutely shop there,” she says.

Learn about the health equity issues affecting Coloradans at Collective Colorado, a publication of The Colorado Trust.