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Quenching Denver's Food Deserts

The aquaponics system is reflected in the tilapia tank at The GrowHaus.

The community education area at The GrowHaus.

Aquaponics plants at The GrowHaus.

Hydroponics lettuce at The GrowHaus.

Denver Urban Gardens' mission is to provide sustainable, food-producing neighborhood community gardens.

One of the more than 125 community gardens supported by Denver Urban Gardens.

While Denver is ranked as one of the healthiest cities in the country, one-sixth of its residents live in food deserts without access to fresh, healthy food. Numerous local organizations are working to change this.
Denver is currently ranked No. 5 on the Forbes Top 20 Healthiest Cities in America list. To the untrained eye, food outlets, grocers and farmers markets are plentiful. Yet many of Denver's neighborhoods do not have access to affordable healthy foods, much less a supermarket.

According to Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity, about 15 percent of Colorado's population, including 22 percent of children, are food insecure, living in what are referred to as "food deserts."

Food deserts are low-income areas where a substantial number of residents have minimal access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Many people living in Denver's underserved areas simply cannot afford to travel to buy their groceries. Subsequently, they rely heavily on convenience stores and fast food restaurants that are in overwhelming supply.

In Denver, these food deserts include but are not limited to Westwood, Barnum, North Park Hill, Northeast Park Hill, Elyria-Swansea, Five Points and Montbello. Studies show that access to a nearby grocery store encourages people to eat well and maintain a healthy weight. It also decreases the number of diet-related diseases. 
 
The Need for More Supermarkets in ColoradoOne of the more than 125 community gardens supported by Denver Urban Gardens.
 
"The lack of healthy affordable food imposes a significant toll on many of our communities and undermines the health and well-being of children, families, and communities," says Khanh Nguyen, portfolio director for the Colorado Health Foundation, which provides grants to Denver nonprofits.

There are a number of initiatives aimed at rectifying the problem. Organizations such as the Colorado Health Foundation, Denver Healthy People, Colorado State University's extension program, Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) and The GrowHaus are making serious efforts to wipe food deserts off of the Denver map. 
 
Nguyen was instrumental in providing a grant to the Denver Department of Environmental Health to convene the Denver Food Access Task Force. The group prepared a report in 2011 titled Healthy Food For All: Encouraging Grocery Investment in Colorado as a first step to establish a public-private development and business-financing program to encourage supermarkets to locate in underserved communities, as well as increase participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or "food stamps."

"In 2009, Colorado ranked 50th among the states and the District of Columbia for SNAP participation, with fewer than 42 percent of eligible residents enrolled," says Nguyen. 
 
But this is quickly changing. According to the Food Research and Action Center, which works to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States, Colorado saw a 50 percent increase in participation between 2009 and 2011.
 
"While we are modeling our efforts after the successful Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative and numerous other efforts in cities and states across the country, we are tailoring solutions that are Colorado, and in some cases, Denver specific," says Nguyen.
 
Aquaponics plants at The GrowHaus.Urban Agriculture

Increasing the number of grocery stores might be the most obvious way to improve access to affordable fresh foods, but other innovative approaches could help make Denver's food deserts more fertile. 
 
Blake Angelo, urban agricultural education coordinator for the Denver metropolitan area, works for a Colorado State University (CSU) extension program designed to enhance the city's interest in urban gardening. The university has broadened its scope from a traditional program focused on rural access to food programs that are more relevant to urban audiences.
 
"A good example of that is our 4-H program, which has moved from breeding cows or sheep to after-school science and robotics," Angelo says. 
 
The 4-H program engages young Coloradans in areas such as environmental science, rocketry, foods and nutrition and animal science. Other extension programs cover nutrition education and native plants.
 
Angelo says Denver-based programs and organizations are focusing on food production and distribution in an effort to "extend community empowerment" and bring healthy food into communities that are food insecure. These efforts include bringing local farmers markets into underserved areas, utilizing SNAP benefits and working with local school districts and organizations to teach people how to cultivate their own food. 
 
"There are some really creative ways out there that food production is being encouraged in these lower income areas," says Angelo.
 
Among the most creative are two groups funded by the Colorado Health Foundation: Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) and The GrowHaus.
 
The GrowHaus, a nonprofit indoor farm, marketplace and education center, utilizes hydroponic systems to produce fresh greens for its residents. Currently, it is focusing its efforts on its own Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. The farm has set its sights on starting a food-distribution marketplace, where area residents will be able to buy organic produce at an affordable rate as well as through the SNAP program. 

"They have created community-driven, neighborhood-based food systems by serving as a hub for urban agriculture, education, business development and job training," says the Colorado Health Foundation's Nguyen. 
 
In addition to commercial agricultural efforts, demand for community gardens in Denver has also increased. DUG currently builds approximately 20 new community gardens each year, providing residents in need with the right tools to literally grow a healthy sustainable neighborhood from the ground up.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn

Read more articles by Katie Rapone.

Katie is a British, Denver-based freelance writer with a niche for Health and Wellness. Contact her here.
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