Backyard Gardens Led the Way for a Grocery Store in This Food Desert

Denver’s Westwood neighborhood will soon be home to a 75,000-square-foot community-owned co-op.

(Photo: Revision International/Facebook)

Oct 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

In 2009, residents of Denver’s Westwood neighborhood wanted to talk with Joseph Teipel and Eric Kornacki of the food justice nonprofit Re:Vision. The community was frustrated about its limited access to healthy food; nothing could be bought without getting in the car. Grocery chains didn’t find the low-income neighborhood attractive, but with only $500 to spend on a project in Westwood, breaking ground on a store wasn’t in the cards for Re:Vision. Instead, residents, with support from the nonprofit, took a small-scale, back-to-the-land approach, working with their neighbors to grow food in backyards.

The proof was in the crop yield. Six years later, more than 400 Westwood families have backyard gardens. Now, one of the country’s largest urban-based community-run agriculture programs is thriving in one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods, where 35 percent of the 15,500 residents—more than 80 percent of whom are Latino—live below the poverty line.

“It was the community that had the idea, the community that wanted to do it,” explained Catherine Jaffee, director of communications at Re:Vision. ”Eric just connected the resources to help make it happen.”

Re:Vision has now rustled up new resources that could make Westwood’s initial desire for a supermarket a reality. With a grant from Denver’s Office of Economic Development, Re:Vision purchased a 74,000-square-foot building in the heart of the neighborhood. The Westwood Food Co-op will feature a community garden, an event space, and an incubator kitchen where residents can make products for sale in the store. Annual memberships are priced at $15, lifetime memberships at $150, and Re:Vision is out to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter to fix a leaky roof and turn on the lights. The store plans to open its doors within the next six months.

“Re:Vision is the gardening program, and Re:Vision is now the property,” Jaffee said. “But the community owns and operates this grocery store, as they’ve wanted to from the very beginning.”

In the Kickstarter video, a Westwood Unidos community connector, Norma, highlights the same point. “The most important thing to understand with a grocery store that is owned by the people of Westwood is that the residents are the main beneficiaries of this supermarket,” she says in Spanish.

The distinction is a subtle but important one. New studies show the intervening “build it and they will come” model of opening grocery stores in food deserts hasn’t been successful. In 2010, a neighborhood in the Bronx was the target of a New York City tax incentive program designed to bring healthy food to underserved areas. The following year, a 17,000-square-foot supermarket opened. But in May, a study showed that though perceptions of access to healthy food improved, the diet of the community did not.

“I’m not surprised that one supermarket didn’t make a difference. It’s such a vast problem, it’s kind of like a Band-Aid on a heart attack,” Michelle Friedman, communications director at the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, told TakePart at the time. “We really believe that you have to approach the community at large to really alleviate this problem in any meaningful way.”

A study published in April found similar results: Adding grocery stores to neighborhoods that lacked them produced little change in eating habits. What most influences the way people shop and eat? Education and income levels.

But Re:Vision has reason to think it will succeed where those before have failed, including neighboring Safeways that shut their doors over the summer.

“The answer isn’t a grocery store,” Jaffee said. “The answer is a solution the community owns themselves, and that’s what we focus on. The grocery store is not our top priority. Our top priority is supporting the community in driving their own solutions.”

In that sense, the Westwood Food Co-op feels like a natural outgrowth of the community’s direct involvement and enthusiastic embrace of urban-based agriculture.

“We’ve been working with the community now for six years to build a really solid base of folks who are now going to be co-op members, who will apply for some of the jobs that open up in the store, who will call the shots and be on the board and select the products,” Jaffee said. “It’s not just that a grocery store is coming into the area. It’s been in the making now for many, many years.”