Fostering community and fighting food scarcity in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood

By Rey-Lynn Little and Katie Pickrell

Westwood is Denver’s most densely populated community, but the neighborhood is void of a full-service grocery store. The only grocer is the Westwood Food Co-op: a small-scale, community-owned market that sits along Morrison Road.

There’s a basket of free kale placed at the door. Inside, the main room hosts a few racks of packaged food, a pile of produce baskets and a pair of freezers in the back for dairy, eggs and a small selection of meats. Behind the counter is Inda Vergara, a promotora for Re:Vision, the nonprofit organization that brought the co-op to the community in partial thanks to a $1.2 million performance-based loan from Denver’s Office of Economic Development.

Vergara says her work with Re:Vision makes her feel more connected to her community. She has lived in Westwood, a neighborhood in west Denver that’s classified as a food desert, since 1992. Her community is one of Denver’s most Hispanic areas: 80 percent of residents are Latino, 31 percent are foreign born and 23 percent of adults don’t speak English. It’s also one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods with 35 percent of people living in poverty. 

“When we plant the seeds for the families, the families, the kids, they love it,” Vergara said, adding that her favorite part of working for Re:Vision is getting to show the class — kids especially — what they can do at home. 

Many of Westwood’s Hispanic residents have a history of growing and cooking food at home, according to Vergara. Vergara is originally from Mexico, where her mother still lives, and said her role at Re:Vision planting tomatoes, tomatillos, broccoli, and chili peppers reminds her of gardening and cooking with her family as a child. 

To support residents in Westwood, Re:Vision operates three programs: Re:Farm, Re:Unite and Re:Own. The co-op is part of the Re:Own initiative because it’s owned by its members. 

Vergara is one of Re:Vision’s 11 promotoras (they also have one male promotor), so she’s responsible for spreading word around the community about what programs Re:Vision offers. She sees her job as an opportunity to participate in the community, which she finds is most productive when “families [are] working together.” 

Vergara works most closely with the Re:Farm backyard garden program; she promotes it wherever she goes, whether she’s at a doctors appointment or volunteering at the co-op. Once she gets a family interested, she or another promotora heads to their home to help set up the garden. This year, Vergara said, Re:Vision has helped more than 280 families put gardens in their backyards.

“It’s very important because [planting their own garden] saves more money for families. Especially when the families are low income, this helps so much,” Vergara said.

But it isn’t always easy to find a family able to utilize the program as many of the neighborhood’s residents live in apartments, rent their homes or don’t have the time to maintain a garden on top of a busy work schedule. Inda doesn’t have a backyard garden of her own because she lives in an apartment.

“One day when I have my house,” Vergara said, “then I will plant my garden.” 

Food to fit the community    

The box of free leafy greens at the co-op’s doorstep, and the majority of the produce inside the Westwood Co-op, came from the urban farm directly behind the store. The farm is two-thirds of an acre and hosts a 320-square-foot shipping container that has been up-cycled into a hydroponic garden for lettuces. Only 25 percent of the produce is sold at the co-op, and another half is sold at market-rate to Denver restaurants. The last 25 percent is donated to the Denver Food Rescue and SAME Cafe.

In 2013, the Re:Farm program cultivated 42,500 pounds of produce. But despite the store’s commitment to providing the community with fresh produce and healthy food, it’s struggling to attract a lot of customers in its current state.

“I think that not having meat here might be a big reason why we don’t see a lot more folks in the community come in,” Evalina Kirkpatrick, a volunteer for Re:Vision, said. “I think folks really appreciate this and really appreciate that they have access to local produce, but if you have folks working two, three jobs trying to support their family, they might opt for a grocery store that has more items available so they can get everything in one go.”

With scarce access to healthy foods, Westwood residents have a higher rate of adult and childhood obesity compared to all Denver residents.According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 percent of Westwood residents are an unhealthy weight compared with 64 percent of Denver residents overall.

Grocers that increase access to healthy, fresh produce can alleviate some of the barriers that put low-income populations at risk for conditions like obesity and diabetes, but the introduction of health food stores, like Whole Foods or Natural Grocers, can contribute to the gentrification of a neighborhood by raising housing prices and making food both culturally and economically inaccessible. 

 A study by Portland State University professor Daniel Monroe Sullivan found that when a new grocery store opened up in a gentrifying neighborhood of Portland, 84 percent of white residents shopped there at least monthly compared to only 46 percent of non-white residents. 

But unlike other grocery stores, the Westwood Food Co-op is owned by its members, who are residents of the neighborhood and make all of the decisions regarding the store. Re:Vision designed the co-op this way to keep power in the hands of the community.

“Community members do the work for themselves, rather than us coming in and being like ‘we got you, don’t worry,’” Kirkpatrick said. “A lot of the expertise is already lying in the community.”

On top of providing fresh produce, the co-op itself offers free cooking and preserving classes for the community, by the community. Next door is La Casita, where residents can take athletic or academic classes in Spanish and English. Beside that is Re:Vision’s headquarters, which also provides services to residents who are facing displacement from the neighborhood. 

A changing neighborhood 

Aside from the cultural barriers to food access, the introduction of a chain grocer can also hasten the gentrification of a neighborhood by increasing the average home value. A 2007 report from the consulting firm Johnson Economics says the introduction of a specialty grocer to a community raises home values by an estimated 17.5 percent. 

As housing prices in Denver nearly doubled in the last five years, the city’s median income grew as well. According to a Denver housing study conducted by the Urban Institute, “an influx of new arrivals… especially around the city center” caused for the percentage of very-low income households to decrease 6 percent from 2000 to 2015, “reflecting the shift in Denver’s population to higher-income households.”

In Westwood, home values increased at a particularly alarming rate over the last five years. According to the real estate website Trulia, the average sale price of a home in 2013 was $130,000. Now, it’s $290,000.

The dramatic doubling of the neighborhood’s property values puts many residents at risk for displacement from the neighborhood. 

Over the last decade, Westwood has been one of several neighborhoods targeted by revitalization projects. In 1992, when Vergara first moved to Westwood, she remembered experiencing more crime and graffiti. But after the city’s center, Morrison Road, underwent repairs and became one of Denver’s Certified Creative Districts, the area changed significantly. 

The arrival of new shops and the drastic increase in housing prices echoes what Denver residents have seen in other neighborhoods like Five Points. When businesses set up shop to provide for the economic majority, it can drive up the cost of living for minorities in the area.

“It’s changing too much,” Vergara said. While she is glad the neighborhood seems cleaner and safer, she said she’s seen “families move because it’s too expensive.”

Embracing changes to the community

Although some residents have been forced to relocate thanks to changes in the neighborhood, more are confident the neighborhood can be revitalized without ostracizing the existing community. 

Santiago Jaramillo, a Denver artist who lives in Westwood and has painted many of the neighborhood’s murals (including the Westwood Food Co-op’s), said residents are excited about the changes to the neighborhood because they keep in line with the community’s strong Mexican-American culture.

“Just talking to people and telling them the plans that we have [for the neighborhood], they get so happy … because we felt forgotten. Finally we're getting noticed and things are happening around here,” Jaramillo said. “We're very focused on trying to direct how things change. We want to keep it very Mexican, Mexican-American.”

Jaramillo is a third-generation resident of Westwood; his family has lived there since his grandpa moved from Mexico and bought a house in the neighborhood. He remembers it as a quiet, working-class community until he was in high school. At that time, gang violence forced the neighborhood change for the worse. Now, as the neighborhood undergoes another transformation, Jaramillo is hopeful that the motivation of its own community members will force it to change for the better. 

“There’s so much more community engagement,” Jaramillo said. “We're not afraid of the change because we’re so involved with things down here.”