Picturesque Colorado scenery can paint a misleading picture about wellness

Instead of hiking, biking and skiing, many Coloradans struggle to simply stroll through their neighborhoods or put healthy food on the table.
Colorado boasts a distinct take on the good life. Consider these scenes from a recent Colorado Tourism commercial:

A young woman gazes out a car window as high-country sun warms her face and her sunglasses mirror a snowy alpine vista.

A fallen pine serves as a bridge for smiling hikers who cross a trickling stream at the center of wooded thicket.

The smooth skin of child’s hand grabs a stony shelf as he pulls himself to new heights of exploring, his backdrop dogged by pinyon-juniper outcroppings along red rock formations.

These images unfold to the atmospheric strumming of the former Denver indie rock band Shady Elders. They lull viewers to visit (and often relocate to) a place where the sun famously shines year-round on what is marketed as a healthful population in an active, outdoorsy place where obesity rates are among the lowest in the nation.

But commercials can be misleading.

This one spotlights iconic images of Rocky Mountain wellness. But it clashes with what community organizers report around Colorado. In less affluent, often black and brown communities statewide, such basic wellness staples as healthy groceries or opportunities for physical activity can be scarce.

Consider these findings in the recently-released Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger:

     - One in 10 Coloradans struggles to pay for food each day.

     - One in 10 Colorado seniors is challenged to keep adequate food supplies on hand.

     - One in six Colorado children doesn’t know where their next meal will come from.

“There are myriad barriers (to healthy living) that we have unfortunately seen play out more in low-income communities and communities of color,” says Wendy Peters Moschetti, director of Food Systems at LiveWell Colorado, a Denver-based non-profit organization that works with municipal and community leaders to advance equitable health and wellness initiatives.

“Colorado has a booming economy, and it’s recreationally very attractive,” Peters Moschetti continues. “So we are importing what tends to be more middle- to high-income, white people; people who are active, who move here, and who bring health with them.”

Nearly 101,000 people moved to Colorado between 2014 and 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That population surge coincided with increased housing costs and lower occupancy rates. It follows that newcomers to Colorado tend to have money in the bank, and reinforce the state’s image as a bountiful place.

Teshara Cheyenne Loiselle, left, relocated from Florida to Colorado two years ago in part because she sought a better quality of life for her son, left, who has autism. Loiselle, who is the boy's sole caregiver, says there are few places to go outside and play where they live in Rifle, Colo. She also sees many families there struggle with food insecurity. (Photo: Courtesy of Tehsara Cheyenne Loiselle)

“What I think we’re ignoring is children, low-income communities and communities of color across the state,” Peters Moschetti says. These Coloradans disproportionately face barriers to good health.

What barriers?

Rising Metro Denver housing and childcare prices mean families have less money to buy healthy food.

     - Residents may not live near a store that sells high-quality, nutritional foods.

     - They may not have easy transportation.

     - They may be reticent to take advantage of the federal food safety net via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program      (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

     - Their neighborhood lacks inadequate sidewalks.

     - They may not have access to clean, safe, welcoming parks.

     - There is no nearby recreation center.

A food desert sprouts hope

One of many initiatives backed by LiveWell Colorado is Double Up Food Bucks, a program that enables SNAP recipients to stretch their benefit when those dollars are spent at farmers markets like the one housed inside the Growhaus in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

The GrowHaus in Denver's Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is based in an historic 20,000 square-foot greenhouse, which has been renovated to grow produce, distribute food, and teach about healthy living. (Photo: Courtesy of the Growhaus)

There there is no grocery store in Elyria-Swansea, making it one of the city’s food deserts. The average household income in Elyria-Swansea is $44,700, compared to Denver’s average of $73,100.

More than 27 percent of the residents in this area — located beneath the I-70 overpass and just east of the National Western Complex — actually live in poverty.

“Residents of (Elyria-Swansea) are predominantly Hispanic, and when compared to Denver overall, are younger, have less income, and less education,” according to research compiled by the Denver Department of Environmental Health. “In fact, Elyria Swansea has one of the highest Hispanic populations of any neighborhood in Denver at 84%, compared with Denver at about 32%”

The neighborhood also sees a higher rate of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Laura Molina is a former resident of Elyria-Swansea who is now staying with family until she can afford new housing. A mother of three, Molina turned to the GrowHaus, is a nonprofit indoor community farm where fresh food is grown and distributed, and where members of the community can take classes and workshops about cooking, gardening and nutrition. It opened in 2009, fueled predominantly by grassroots support.

Denver resident Laura Molina, 29, started going to the Growhaus to address food insecurity in her own family. Molina now works there as a market coordinator, despite an ongoing to struggle to find affordable housing for herself and three kids. (Photo: Courtesy of the Growhaus)

“Everybody who comes here is from the community,” says Molina, who works as market coordinator at the Growhaus. “Sometimes they don’t have a job, and they have 3 or 4 kids. There isn’t another food bank in our area, and sometimes it’s really hard for them to get there. Or sometimes you have to bring a lot of things to prove that you don’t work, that you don’t have money, that you have a lot of kids.”

Trained by LiveWell Colorado, Molina also now serves as a Community Food Advocate who can help families in need locate additional resources.

Pulling back the wellness veil

Hunger Free Colorado CEO Kathy Underhill says the reality for many families in Elyria-Swansea, along with low-income communities statewide, is that life fails to match up with the stereotype of healthy Colorado living conjured by our proximity to the Rocky Mountains.

“The closest that a lot of kids in Denver are going to get (to picture-perfect alpine fun) is the Ruby Hill Rail Yard,” or the ski and snowboard terrain park opened by the City of Denver in 2010. “That’s it. They get to look at the mountains from a distance, but they don’t get to participate. And if you have multiple children and yourself? It’s totally unattainable.”

She says that Colorado’s “segmented society” means that people with the money to enjoy the state’s pique amenities may have little sense of the battle some of their neighbors are waging against hunger insecurity.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines hunger insecurity as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” That agency reports that 14.9% of American households are food insecure.

Colorado kids can enjoy a healthy lunch through free summer meal program. Hunger Free Colorado Food also staffs a Resource Hotline for families struggling to put food on the table. Call toll-free at (855) 855-4626 or visit (Photo by E. Agar courtesy of Hunger Free Colorado).

Underhill continues: “We have 18 frontier counties in Colorado with fewer than six people per square mile, and we have 23 rural counties.”

 “When you think about all the issues that drive community, and the role of government, if you’re in a rural community with few government services, just how relevant is the government to your life?"

That’s just one reason Coloradans living in rural communities may be reluctant to apply for safety net programs like SNAP and WIC. Some of the state’s residents may be even less likely to turn to federal programs if they live in a households where not everyone can prove their residency status.

Rifle resident Teshara Cheyenne Loiselle also notes the proverbial independence and pride among rural Colorado residents.

“They’re not going to ask for help,” says Loiselle, who volunteers as a Community Food Advocate and helps distribute weekly food bags at her son’s school. Loiselle says roughly 60 of the 400 families in her school community receive a bag of food each week.

“I’m sure there’s more of a need,” she says, “but parents are very stubborn.”

And, she adds, don’t be mistaken into thinking that a high-country town like Rifle caters to kids who want to play outside. Loiselle says there are few sidewalks where kids can safely walk in Rifle. There is only one public pool, which is open only two months of the year, she says. And the rest of the year? It’s just too darn cold for outdoor activities.

Fresh policy facilitates solutions

LiveWell Colorado Policy Director Julie George says the scenario Loiselle describes is a typical barrier to healthy living that disproportionately impacts the state’s poor and working class communities.

Through the HEAL Cities & Towns campaign, George encourages municipal leaders to address such barriers through policy and development decisions. She reports successes in towns like Littleton, where city leaders worked to make busy streets safer for walking and crossing, or La Junta, where city government supports an active senior center.

And that, George says, is what it takes; leaders in government and neighborhoods who are “making access to healthy living a part of their decision-making in a way that I don’t think they were a few years ago.”

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime freelance journalist.

This is part one of a collaborative editorial project between Confluence Denver and LiveWell Colorado. The six-part series will examine barriers to healthy living in Colorado, and how communities are finding solutions.

Read more articles by Elana Ashanti Jefferson.

Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime cultural affairs journalist. Her work has appeared in House Beautiful, Lucky, Popular Mechanics, The Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
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