Montbello still has a food desert, and small programs are trying to fill healthy food gaps

Farmers markets are helping provide food options while elected officials try to lure a full-service grocery store
9 min. read
The Denver Botanic Gardens’ farm stand, set up at the Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center in Montbello, July 6, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

For about 90 minutes last Friday, the lobby inside the Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center on Peoria Street served as a miniature marketplace giving nearby residents access to something that can still be tricky to come by for many Montbello residents: Fresh produce.

On a table across one of the building's entrances were several kinds of greens, cage-free eggs, carrots and little containers filled with green peas. Access to this kind of food, which is grown locally and distributed by Denver Botanic Gardens' Chatfield Farms, is one of the concerns District 11 Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore most often hears about from her constituents.

“Food access continues to be an issue that people, of course, want to have addressed,” Gilmore said. “But honestly, I hear a lot about safety as well and a lot about infrastructure and mobility, because we’re — out in our neighborhood, we’re trying to right some decades-old equity issues that are unique to communities of color.”

Gilmore said the district — which includes Montbello, Green Valley Ranch and DIA — has had a hard time keeping a full-service grocery store. Gilmore has served in her seat since July 2015 but has lived in the district for more than 25 years.

“It’s always been that struggle back and forth just to make sure that we had, you know, the full-service grocery stores to serve the neighborhood out here,” Gilmore said.

The United States Department of Agriculture has several factors that help define a food desert, but as their website states, food deserts can be generally described as "neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources."

The Chatfield Farms market is one of the ways residents can still get fresh produce locally. Folks who stopped by on Friday to visit the farm stand lived in Montbello, Stapleton, Green Valley Ranch and even nearby Aurora. The market is open Fridays and usually starts around 2 p.m.

Roy Willis, who used to live in Montbello but now lives across the city line in Aurora, visited the market on Friday with his sister, Aprila.

“It’s fresh food,” Roy Willis said. “They're all homegrown. They’ve picked it. It’s not going through all that (processing).”

Willis said he’s unsure why there hasn’t been a new grocery store built in the area. “You got all these open spaces. There are plenty of buildings out here.”

Stapleton resident Diana Smith said the market is a very different option compared to the fast food and liquor stores she said are much more readily available in that area.

Like Willis, she immediately noted the “freshness” of the food as a big reason why she liked getting food there. Smith said the pricing — with some produce as low as $1 and 50 percent discounts for those paying with SNAP — was reasonable.

“I don’t have to stand in line at King Soopers,” Smith said.

Lucinda Ogidan poses for a portrait after shopping at the Denver Botanic Gardens farm stand, set up at the Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center in Montbello, July 6, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver city employee Lucinda Ogidan found out about the market through an employee bulletin. A Montbello resident, Ogidan said the produce she gets at the market “taste different” than the stuff she buys at grocery stores, adding that it usually tastes better. She usually makes smoothies out of the stuff she buys and has since started encouraging other people to stop by.

“I was an ambassador for it. I would tell people, ‘You must come here!’” Ogidan said.

Replacing the former grocery store in Montbello has proven difficult, for a variety of reasons.

The neighborhood did have a full-service Safeway near Chambers and Green Valley Ranch Boulevard that Gilmore said closed a few years ago. She said its closure was part of a larger Denver exodus for the grocery company. Gilmore said the community only got about two to three weeks' notice that they were closing.

“So the location is where the Save-A-Lot is now located, that’s where the old Safeway was,” Gilmore said, referring to the intersection near Chambers Road and Green Valley Ranch Boulevard.“That was, I think, a huge shock to the community, to myself and my family as well, because we didn’t really have any notice or have an opportunity to reach out to Safeway leadership and say, ‘Wow, could we work with you? What’s a way to get you to stay in the neighborhood?'”

The Save-A-Lot opened in December 2017. The store provides food options, but it’s not as large as the Safeway that once stood there, as Gilmore points out half the footprint once occupied by the larger supermarket is now taken up by a Planet Fitness.

Gilmore said most Montbello residents currently have two primary grocery options: The Walmart Neighborhood Market and the Save-A-Lot, which are both located on Chambers Road. But they’re not full-service grocery stores with a pharmacy, a bakery, meat counter, a deli counter and a wide array of produce and other food items.

The closest full-service grocery stores to Montbello are King Soopers stores in Green Valley Ranch (where Gilmore said she usually does her grocery shopping), in Stapleton and in Reunion, a subdivision in Commerce City north of Montbello.

“What we usually see happening is that folks are driving to the King Soopers Marketplace that is in Reunion, it’s a straight shot down Tower,” Gilmore said.

Diana Smith holds carrots she bought from the Denver Botanic Gardens' farm stand, set up at the Arie P. Taylor Municipal Center in Montbello, July 6, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

She said she’s been working with the Office of Development and reaching out to grocery stores. She’s spoken to Krogers (which operates Kings Soopers), Lucky’s Market, Sprouts and Whole Foods about possibly opening up shop in her district.

Even though “building relationships” sounds a little vague, it’s crucial for Gilmore: She said it involves speaking to grocers, “so they’re not maybe operating off stereotypes or biases about our neighborhood, but really get to know the areas”

The markets usually want to see more density near their development and no other groceries within a three-mile radius, Gilmore said.

When asked about plans to open a grocery store in Montbello, King Soopers Spokesperson Adam Williamson said in an email they "are actively pursuing opportunities for a new store to serve customers in the area," and are working with Gilmore to facilitate the process. He was pretty vague about specifics, though.

"Our challenge is to work through obstacles that are presented in our unique neighborhoods i.e. suitable and affordable retail space," Williamson said in the email. "I would love to provide additional information however in this competitive landscape it is proprietary."

Finding adequate space is also tricky. There are some areas that could possibly provide space: Gilmore said grocers have been looking in the area near 56th Avenue and Tower Road as a potential location. Gilmore said if a grocery were to be placed there, she would try to speak to RTD or private companies about potentially setting up a shuttle system to get people to and from the store.

But ultimately, bringing a new store is still largely a decision made by a private company, so Gilmore added she can only help by marketing the area and laying out the possibilities.

There is approximately $1 million set aside in funding from the city and county ($250,000) and the Colorado Fresh Food Financing Fund ($750,000) to help lure a grocery store to the area. While she's optimistic about the chances, Gilmore points out it may not be enough; by comparison, she said it took about $4 million in incentives to bring a new Target to the 16th Street Mall.

When the incentive package was voted on by the Denver City Council in February 2017, Councilman Paul López had hoped the decision would spark more interest in luring grocery stores to food deserts like Montbello and Globeville-Elyria-Swansea.

“I’m supporting this because it sets a precedent,” Lopez said at the time.

Gilmore also voted in support of the incentive package.

“We’re not waiting,” Gilmore said. “We’re not waiting for the grocery stores to figure out how great and amazing we are. We are taking it into our own hands.”

There are some alternative food options providing fresh produce access in Montbello.

Montbello residents have at least three other options to get fresh produce. In addition to Chatfield Farms market, residents can also get fresh greens at a pop-up market near the corner of Albrook Drive and Peoria Street and through Any Street Grocery, which is a farmers market on wheels.

The pop-up market on Albrook and Peoria, called Montbello FreshLo Farm Market, is organized by Montbello Organizing Committee and is propped up at a former RTD Park and Ride site. The market is open from 9 a.m to noon on Saturdays and will open on July 28, running through September.

Program executive director Donna Garnett said in an email it's the second year the market has been operating. She said it's part of "a comprehensive economic development project aimed at improving food access in this food desert/food swamp community."

"The Montbello FreshLo Initiative also includes the buildout of a grocery-anchored cultural center (location to be announced by the end of the month), a healthy living walkable loop, the seasonal farm market, a year-round commercial greenhouse, retail space for locally-owned businesses, and affordable housing," Garnett said in the email.

Any Street Grocery last month celebrate its expansion with a ribbon cutting in Montbello. Like Chatfield Farms, the mobile market accept SNAP benefits as payment, which Gilmore pointed out is helpful for residents.

Jorge Martinez shops inside Any Street Grocery, which is currently parked at McGlone Academy, an elementary school in Montbello, April 24, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

“That’s one of the things that takes a while to work through, to make sure that people can use their electronic debit cards for snap benefits if they’re on assistance,” Gilmore said.

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