West Denver’s Co-op at 1st offers fresh food and, well, a place to cooperate

A tradition of doing good continues at 5045 W. 1st Ave
6 min. read
Di Collingwood shows off a fresh new kale acquisition to her colleagues at The Co-Op at 1st in Barnum West, Nov. 20, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

West Denverites can buy fresh, organic avocados, kale and other produce, along with beef, milk and backyard eggs at the Co-op at 1st.

The co-op shop that opened earlier this year at 5045 W. 1st Ave. also stocks cosmetics and art pieces that are, like much of the food, produced in the Denver area.

A cafe in one corner serves breakfast and lunch.

Culinary entrepreneurs can rent a commercial kitchen by the hour. It even has office and studio space for tenants who run nonprofits or offer classes in self-defense, yoga and dance.

The list above is far from exhaustive.

Di Collingwood sprays water on vegetables on sale at The Co-Op at 1st in Barnum West, Nov. 20, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"It's a little building from the outside. But it holds a whole bunch of good stuff," said Di Collingwood, who manages Co-op at 1st's shop and year-round farmers market.

The 41-year-old building, which isn't really so little, has a history of doing good. It once housed Yesterday's Treasures, a thrift shop whose proceeds helped fund work that grew out of the efforts of two sisters, Rose and Ruth Gates, to provide food, clothing and other assistance to their neighbors living in poverty. Adventist Community Services, a nonprofit of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, ran a food pantry and offered rent and utility assistance out of the low-slung structure.

Kristina Welch, executive director of the food access nonprofit Jovial Concepts, had partnered on projects with Adventist Community Services. When the Adventists announced they were closing down operations at 5045 W. 1st Ave, one of Welch's board members suggested that Jovial Concepts buy the building.

Kristina Welch, founder of The Co-Op at 1st, speaks to a reporter at her Barnum West headquarters, Nov. 20, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Decade-old Jovial Concepts helps families transform lawns into organic gardens to help address food insecurity as well as raise awareness about healthy food and environmental concerns. It had been operating for the most part out of Welch's home. In planning how to use 5045 W. 1st, where Jovial Concept now offices, Welch met with neighbors who spoke of their desire for access to affordable vegetables.

"Our niche was really in food access and growing food that's sustainable in a high desert area," Welch said.

Some of the vegetables sold at the co-op market are grown in nearby backyards, allowing participants in Jovial Concept's lawn-to-garden project to earn extra cash. Co-op at 1st produce also comes from Groundwork,  an environment and food nonprofit that has an urban farm and hydroponic greenhouse in Chaffee Park. Other suppliers include Fresh from the Farm Fungi. Shop manager Collingwood brings in produce from her home garden in Montbello.

"I spend a lot of time looking around, finding local suppliers," Collingwood said.

She notes neighbors could walk to larger supermarkets.

"But you'd be pretty pooped by the time you got home with your groceries."

A dozen organic eggs at the King Soopers about two miles north along Sheridan Boulevard cost $5.89 on a day when shoppers could pick up a dozen unwashed eggs from Barnum-raised chickens for $5 at the co-op. The co-op's grass-fed organic beef from a Yuma County farmer was $2 more a pound than the $5.99 that King Soopers was charging for organic beef. Organic avocados were the same 99 cents apiece at both stores, and the co-op's organic cactus leaves were $1.09, about a quarter the price at King Soopers.

Neighbors get a 10 percent discount at the co-op. Shoppers from outside Barnum can pay an annual fee of $50 per individual or $75 per family for the same discount. Co-op at 1st accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments, commonly known as food stamps, and participates in the Double Up Food Bucks program that gives shoppers another dollar to spend on Colorado-grown produce for every SNAP dollar they spend.

Three days after moving into a house three blocks away, musician Rachel Eisenstat stopped in at the co-op because she'd heard it offered yoga classes.  Collingwood gave her a tour, and Eisenstat left with breakfast burritos and plans to return, perhaps to volunteer. The co-op's mix of offerings struck Eisenstat "as a way to build community."

Next summer, Welch plans to launch a free lunch program using USDA funds to ensure children in low-income neighborhoods don't go hungry during the months they can't go to the school cafeteria. Logan Gray is a former Jovial Concepts intern who has a clinic at the co-op offering massage and other wellness techniques. He will offer yoga and movement classes to the children who come for lunch.

Logan Gray and Deacon Rodda greet Osho the dog inside The Co-Op at 1st's movement studio. Barnum West, Nov. 20, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Gray is among several tenants who have embraced what Welch calls a "dream to create really strong community services here."

Marin Toscano said she had struggled to find affordable commissary kitchen space for the aspiring chefs and caterers in the incubator and accelerator nonprofit she started last year.  She was able to double her roster from two to four after connecting with Welch and moving her Food Bridge office into the co-op building.

Kitaya Lindsay was prepping to cater an event one recent morning, filling the co-op with savory smells. Lindsay, who recently retired as a nurse, said she'd always dreamed of opening a business to cater and teach Thai cuisine. Toscano also is supporting cooks specializing in Mexican, Moroccan and Native American cooking.

Kitaya Lindsay makes pad thai The Co-Op at 1st in Barnum West, Nov. 20, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A remodel after buying  5045 W. 1st Ave. included expanding what had been a small kitchen into the commercial kitchen and brightening the exterior walls with murals. Katrina Arnold, who lives a 15-minute walk away, said she watched the construction.

"Like most people in the neighborhood, I drove past and thought, 'I wonder what that place is?'" said Arnold, who cooks at the City, O' City restaurant in Capitol Hill.

Arnold first stopped in to see whether anyone in the building could use some chairs she was discarding. She's now not only a regular shopper, but a weekly volunteer helping Collingwood. Arnold connected a ceramist friend to the co-op, which now stocks that artist's wares.

"There should be more options like this in neighborhoods," Arnold said.

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