Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center steps up to meet food needs during the coronavirus outbreak

But its grocery store project is on hold.
5 min. read
Joseph Shaver grabs groceries from the Sun Valley Kitchen, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Thursday would have been the grand opening of Sun Valley Grocery, which will offer eggs, milk, meat and other goods at discount prices to families whose main grocery option within walking distance is a 7-Eleven.

But those plans have been put on hold. The food pantry that's operated at 1260 Decatur Street for four years, which the grocery store was supposed to complement by offering more options, will be the focus of founder Glenn Harper and director Daisy Wiberg as they help families through the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

"We've just shifted to being able to donate and give away as much food as possible," Wiberg said.

Before the business closures and job losses sparked by the coronavirus outbreak, 30 to 40 families would visit Sun Valley Kitchen and Community Center's pantry on any given day, she said. Last Wednesday, about 50 families collected a total of 1,500 pounds of food from the pantry. On Saturday, that grew to 75 and more than 2,000 pounds of food. This Wednesday, it was 100 families and 1,700 pounds of food.

The pantry is open Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The Sun Valley Kitchen is ready to distribute a lot of groceries to a lot of people, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"We're just seeing this heightening of how much of a need there is for food access in our community," Wiberg said. "If we can play this small part in feeding families, we're just grateful to be able to play a part."

Pantries across the country have been concerned about a possible decrease in supplies. Restaurants that once donated food that might have been wasted have closed. Supermarkets are seeing their shelves stripped by people who can afford to hoard, leaving less food that might have been donated.

In south Denver, the Jewish Family Services food pantry has seen demand go up 200 to 300 percent, according to Gabriel Moe-Lobeda, who coordinates the pantry at 3201 South Tamarac Dr. in the Hampden neighborhood.

"We're scrambling to buy food," Moe-Lobeda said during an online seminar organized by the research and advocacy nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado.

He said some of the increased demand may be because the closure of smaller pantries has pushed people to his.

"What is going to happen if we're forced to close? If a large number of my staff comes down with the virus?" Moe-Lobeda said.

He and Michael Bruno, who runs Inner City Parish's food pantry in La Alma-Lincoln Park, both said during the seminar that they also are trying to meet needs, such as for cleaning supplies, they don't usually address. Bruno said that before the outbreak, his pantry served 60 to 70 families on any given day. Wednesday, it served 155.

In Sun Valley, Wiberg and Harper said their supporters have continued to come through. On Wednesday, that included a team from Work Options for Women, a nonprofit that prepares women for culinary industry jobs, that dropped off 100 sandwiches.

"We've been super-fortunate that we've been able to provide an abundant amount," Harper said.

The Sun Valley pantry had followed a free grocery store model in which people chose their own items. Now, to comply with the social distancing that health experts say is needed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, staff and a few volunteers pack bags that are distributed to people waiting outside. On Wednesday, Harper placed chairs six feet apart along the sidewalk to indicate where people should stand to maintain social distance.

Glenn Harper bumps elbows with Stacey McCartey as she picks up groceries at Sun Valley Kitchen, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
The Sun Valley Kitchen is ready to distribute a lot of groceries to a lot of people, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The grocery store, which is now scheduled to open sometime in mid-April or -May, was made possible in part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The store's partners include Bondadosa, a food delivery service founded in 2017.

Harper and Wiberg envision one day being able to deliver groceries through Bondadosa. Customers who don't have internet connections would be able to use a device at the grocery store to order.

During a recent test run of Bondadosa, Harper and Wiberg learned that oxtails are popular among customers, individual servings of yogurt less so.

"We really want the market to serve the community," Wiberg said.

Alex Chavarria organizes groceries inside the Sun Valley Kitchen, March 25, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

When Harper, a longtime Sun Valley resident, bought the building at 1260 Decatur in 2012, it had been vacant for some time. He did much of the renovations himself. As he worked, neighbors would stop by to tell him the boxy little building had been a grocery store they relied on for essentials. He even met members of two families who once ran grocery businesses there.

He also heard from neighbors about the difficulties they had accessing fresh, affordable food.

Harper's initial dream was to open a restaurant, but he started with the community center, which opened in 2014. In addition to the food pantry, the community center has offered cooking classes and meals for young people.

The Sun Valley Kitchen breakfast and lunch café opened in 2018 in the space. In addition to the specialties Harper cooks, neighbors take over once a week, gaining experience in a commercial kitchen and bringing new flavors to the menu.

Café operations were suspended last Monday in response to the coronavirus slowdown.

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