Words Carly DeFilippo
Photos Lauren DeFilippo

A Mile-High Oasis: Cultivating Food Access and Community Empowerment

Mar 10, 2017

Colorado is often lauded for its incredibly healthy residents, credited to the abundance of outdoor recreation available to locals and tourists alike. But according to a recent real estate study in the nation’s most polluted zip code—80216—not all is well in the centennial state’s capital city.

The Denver neighborhood known as Elyria-Swansea was originally home to Eastern European immigrants in the 1880s. Today—after more than 100 years of industries leaching lead, arsenic, and heavy metals into the air, water, and soil—the now dominantly Latino community reports asthma rates 40% higher than the rest of the city and a life expectancy 12 years shorter than the Washington Park neighborhood just 30 minutes away.

Steps from I-70, a massive highway that physically disenfranchises this already disadvantaged community from the rest of downtown, sits The GrowHaus. This former cut flower processing plant and greenhouse sat empty for years until local restaurateur Paul Tamburello and activist Ashara Ekundayo reimagined its future. “At the beginning, all we had was a vacant building, an interesting idea and a team of three white guys who didn’t speak Spanish,” remembers Executive Director Coby Gould.

Their idea was to transform the abandoned greenhouse into a resource to combat the community’s food access struggles. Prior to the opening of The GrowHaus, residents had to take multiple buses—often traveling up to an hour—to reach the nearest grocery store. Paired with the toxic soil that prevented the possibility of backyard gardens, it was a recipe for a food desert. Yet simply setting up shop and offering food wasn’t going to work. “We started by hosting open houses, and the same ten people would show up—and they didn’t seem to represent the community. We realized we had to show up at the places where community was already happening: schools, churches, community centers. We had to go where people were already engaged,” Coby explains.

Much of the struggle was based on a time-tested distrust of outsiders. Coby recalls one resident patiently explaining: “People who look like you have been trying to do things here for a long time and not delivering. Just because you’re a smiling face, why should you be any different?” But The GrowHaus is still there eight years later, proving itself entirely different than the previous failed attempts. Built on the pillars of food production, distribution, and education, its mission is to address all inherent obstacles contributing to food access. “It’s not just about production and sales,” Coby explains. “There’s a cultural piece, a knowledge piece, a physical access piece, and a price piece.”

Take the organization’s onsite market, which offers a small selection of local produce alongside cultural staples like corn masa, dried chiles, and imported avocados. Since 2013, the original single refrigerator case and crate of fresh fruit and veg has expanded to accommodate the specific requests of the community, namely meats, dairy products, grains, and bulk items like rice and dried beans. “If you can’t come here, shop, and cook an entire meal with it, we haven’t really solved the problem,” explains Development Officer Nathan Mackenzie. The market also addresses the issue of affordability with a sliding scale pricing system. Shoppers who live in the neighborhood pay a lower cost than visitors from other parts of the city. This saves residents both valuable time and money, which means they could come back and attend a class on cooking, building raised garden beds, or even aquaponics.

In addition to such expected services as the market or cooking classes, The GrowHaus’ educational mission has fueled more ambitious projects. In the hydroponic farm, 1,200 heads of bibb lettuce are harvested every week. Next door, giant tilapia and koi fuel an aquaponic system that grows leafy greens, microgreens, and other delicate products for sale to local restaurants. Around the corner, a budding mushroom farm steeps in sauna-like conditions, while baby chicks and bunnies chirp and hop in spacious mesh cages.

Yet with all this diverse, life-giving activity, it’s worth noting that the central space of The GrowHaus is focused more on growing community rather than any specific crop. Under the luminous peak of the vintage greenhouse, a recessed brick courtyard beckons with exotic flowering passionfruit and nasturtium dangling overhead. Yoga mats line a rack in the corner, while a team of volunteers sort through vibrant “rescued” produce from local markets and restaurants. Sourced with help from Denver Food Rescue, each unloved eggplant, tomato, and onion will be used in cooking classes or locally distributed through an onsite no-cost food pantry program.

“If you’re just in it for the wins, you’re going to get really tired really quickly. You have to be in it for the ride, and that has its ups and downs.”

“If you’re just in it for the wins, you’re going to get really tired really quickly. You have to be in it for the ride, and that has its ups and downs.”

Standing in the midst of this “Growasis,” Nathan explains that creating a calm space where people can work, learn, attend events, and simply relax is central to The GrowHaus mission. “If we were simply giving food away for free, that implies it has no value. When we bring people together to learn how to prepare these ingredients or grow food safely in their backyard, we’re not just improving food access; we’re building a sustainable community,” he explains. As The GrowHaus develops, hiring members of the local community has also emerged as a central function of the organization. “We’re essentially working to put ourselves out of a job,” laughs Coby. His commitment is no joke. This summer, he’ll be leaving for less green pastures, leaving behind a fruitful job opportunity for any motivated neighborhood resident.

Despite the inspiring atmosphere, it’s not the first time Coby has considered leaving the The GrowHaus. “The first couple years were incredibly difficult,” he admits. “I was really burnt out and thought I would just stop. But a mentor told me to pick a date far enough out that I could accomplish something—say three years—and to not question the project during that time period unless it totally failed.” As with many nonprofits and start-ups, failure was an important part of The GrowHaus’ evolution. Their original three-person team initially applied for big grants that would allow them to complete all the desired construction on a compact timeline. When those funds fell through, applying for smaller grants forced them to focus on one aspect of their mission at a time, slowing down the process, but offering invaluable time to get to know the community and assess the success of each new addition to the space.

The slow and steady timeline mirrors the experience of farming, and Coby is quick to caution that budgeting time for experimentation and failure is key. “With any of our growing systems, we only expect to make 25% of the maximum yield in the first year; 75% in the second year and to reach full potential in the third year. You have to budget that in, because it takes at least six months to figure out how to tweak the ecosystem you’re creating,” he advises. With each passing year, new and unexpected challenges emerge. Among the most noteworthy is a $1.17 billion highway reconstruction, which offers local residents a controversial menu of costs and benefits. While it promises to reconnect Elyria-Swansea to greater Denver with the construction of a new park, the project will also lead to the relocation of 56 homes and significant potential for increased pollution.

Explaining how he handles each new twist in the plot, Coby offers the advice of his father: “If you’re just in it for the wins, you’re going to get really tired really quickly. You have to be in it for the ride, and that has its ups and downs.” For now, it seems there are plenty of wins to celebrate at The GrowHaus. As for its future, that’s a story the local community will have to write.