What happens to a co-op in a food desert during a pandemic?

The Westwood Food Cooperative has had to shift gears in light of COVID-19.

The Westwood Food Cooperative's new home on Morrison Road, Westwood, April 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Westwood Food Cooperative's new home on Morrison Road, Westwood, April 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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By Ann Marie Awad

Westwood is first in the city in a lot of things. It has the largest concentration of renters in Denver, the largest population of children and has a relatively high rate of COVID-19 infections.

My partner and I moved to the neighborhood in December, and shortly thereafter joined up as members of the Westwood Food Cooperative. Food insecurity is a problem for this neighborhood, and the co-op down the street from us fills an important need.

Like other low-income neighborhoods in the city, Westwood is prey to the same forces of rapid development and displacement. I know that one of those forces is us, so we both wanted to find ways to contribute to our new neighborhood where it really counted. Plus, the co-op was a short walk from our house. We could buy our basic groceries and snacks right around the corner and put our money directly back into the neighborhood.

The co-op is a bright blue storefront on Morrison Ave near Custer Street. It’s part of the campus run by Re:Vision, a nonprofit that has various programs in Westwood to increase food access. The campus is also home to several partner organizations, including Westwood Unidos, which runs a community center; an art gallery attached to a cafe run by Cultura Craft Chocolate; and X’Tabai Yucateca, a food truck, just to name a few.

The co-op feels like an old-school general store, with just a few aisles, a small refrigerated section, and a snack shelf full of addictive Mexican sweets. The place is always staffed with friendly volunteers.

On my way back home, I would often cut behind the building to admire the large urban farm plot on the campus. I had heard that in the summer, Re:Vision grew fresh produce here and supplied the store with it. I couldn’t wait.

But for now, the campus is mostly closed.

JoAnna Cintrón is the executive director of Re:Vision, which works in partnership with the co-op. Re:Vision began as a way to address Westwood’s “food desert,” or dearth of grocery stores offering fresh food.

By mid-March, Westwood — a working-class, heavily Mexican neighborhood — was poised to face very different food access problems.

On the one hand, the co-op plays an important role in the neighborhood. Without it, there’s nowhere else nearby to get eggs, milk, toilet paper, kitchen staples, cleaning supplies and necessities. On the other hand, how long does it fiscally make sense to keep the tiny store open?

On March 19, Re:Vision and Westwood agreed to close the store for at least eight weeks. The next day, the co-op closed its doors, and hung up a sign in a window explaining the decision. By then, the rest of the campus had already been closed for a week.

Two challenges forced the decision: supply and staffing. Cintrón said the co-op is too small to buy stock from a wholesale supplier, like a conventional grocery store would. Instead, when things were normal, the store would replenish its stock weekly from other grocery stores.

“Their president actually, she has a block of a few hours where she goes each week to places like King Soopers and Sam’s and Costco and does all this price-checking to get the items on sale,” Cintrón said. “That’s how the co-op is able to keep stocked, and keep stocked at a lower rate.”

Bare shelves at all of those places started to mean bare shelves at the co-op.

Staffing quickly became an issue as well. With the rest of the campus closed, the store could only be staffed by one volunteer at a time. It was all the workforce the co-op could muster to ensure vulnerable volunteers stayed home.

“That made me very nervous,” Cintrón said. “Seeing stories about how people are fighting over groceries, and just to have one person there from a safety standpoint was concerning to me.”

After closing the store, Re:Vision bought out everything on the store’s shelves at retail price, on the condition that the co-op continued to pay its single employee. Re:Vision’s team then took all of that stock and bagged it up into 75 loads of emergency groceries for families in the area. Turning the co-op’s shelves into those 75 bags of groceries and then delivering them throughout the neighborhood happened over a two-day period. The number of bags doubled with additional groceries from Lifespan Local, Roots Family Center and Kaizen Food Rescue.

If it were a normal year, Re:Vision’s “promotoras” would be helping residents set up gardens right now. The nonprofit has run a backyard garden program since 2009 that now serves twelve neighborhoods in southwest Denver. Promotoras are neighborhood residents that each work with a group of families to build backyard gardens so they can grow and harvest their own fresh produce. It’s Re:Vision’s flagship food access program.

But instead of reaching out to more than 250 area families to set up this year’s gardens, this year promotoras asked if they had food and basic supplies.

“We’re doing all of this on WhatsApp,” Cintrón said. “That has always been our preferred means of communication, but we’re not using like a text bot or anything like that. Our promotoras are literally sitting there texting everybody individually on WhatsApp.”

Then, on March 30, the organization started offering free hot meals every day. On the first day, it served 150. Since then, it’s been able to scale up to 250 meals on average a day. Cintrón said help from the Denver Department of Public Health made the added capacity possible.

About 100 of those meals are delivered to residents in assisted living communities in Barnum and surrounding neighborhoods. “Many of those folks said that was the only meal they had each day,” Cintrón said.

She insists the closure of the co-op is in no way permanent. For at least six more weeks, the doors will remain closed while hot meals will be available around the corner. Both organizations will see if it’s practical to re-open the store in June.

“We knew that we were not able to make a dent in the need. But Re:Vision very much believes that we take care of our own,” Cintrón said. “If we can do 50 meals, we know 50 people that need those.”

Other partner organizations housed at the Re:Vision campus have also pitched in to help, despite suffering losses themselves, including Cultura Craft Chocolate, the food truck X’Tabai Yucateco, Kahlo’s, XATRUCHO and Four Directions Cuisine. “They’re the ones in the kitchen making those meals,” Cintrón said.

She said Re:Vision’s urban farm will continue this year so as to ensure that residents can get their hands on fresh produce.

“We had been experimenting for a few years to make the farm a source of earned income by selling to local restaurants,” she said. While that program isn’t moving forward this year, Re:Vision plans to partner with Sprout City Farms to offer boxes of fresh produce to members of the community who cannot have their own garden.

“We want to make sure that they are getting fresh food on a weekly basis as well,” Cintrón said.

Re:Vision’s backyard garden program will also move forward, but it will look very different.

“We’re just going to test it out by giving families tasks that they can do on their own,” she said.

Normally, promotoras visit with families and work with them to build garden beds, remove weeds and grow food.

“We’re not landscapers, we’re not out there doing it just ourselves, we’re out there doing it with them and teaching them, all along the way,” Cintrón said. “That’s a really important part, that relationship, that closeness, that intimacy…is really what makes our program different and special. That’s where we’re struggling to adapt and we’ll see how it works.”

While Re:Vision’s mission has always been about food access, Cintrón said the nonprofit has never operated a food bank or any kind of emergency food program.

“For us, it’s been a sort of philosophical battle, or mission battle,” she said, adding that its approach to food access has always been about pushing for long-term systemic changes. “We really believe in the power of leveraging what the community knows about their sort of agricultural roots, growing, all of that, into longer-term change.”

But Cintrón said the pandemic made the dramatic pivot necessary.

“The number one fear for community members right now is rent,” she said, noting that Re:Vision works with many undocumented people. “The other factor is that our community has been disproportionately affected by all of the job loss. They’re hourly workers, they’re restaurant workers. So we didn’t want our community to have to decide between paying for food and paying for rent.”

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