Sun Valley, a longtime food desert, finally gets a grocery store

Residents can get fresh produce, basic necessities and grab-and-go foods at an affordable price. Oh, it’s culturally diverse, too.
6 min. read
Zahara Ahmed tidies up at Sun Valley’s Decatur Fresh market. Nov. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Bread, milk, fresh produce, shampoo and breakfast burritos. Sun Valley residents can grab these items and more at Decatur Fresh Market, the long-awaited grocery store, servicing an area void of accessible food and basic necessities.

"Everybody should have access to healthy food," said Selena Ramirez, an employee at the market and long-time Sun Valley resident. "We have produce. We have home goods. We have a coffee bar. We have everything that you need and our price points are really good."

Decatur Fresh, the 1,800-square-foot market, opened its doors Tuesday at 995 North Decatur Street and so far has serviced about 70 to 80 customers.

Fruits, veggies and groceries for sale inside Sun Valley's Decatur Fresh market. Nov. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The store is bright, airy and shoppers are greeted by a bright yellow wall when they enter, equipped with art of fruits and vegetables. It has the feel of a boutique grocery store, until you realize the products are affordable and culturally relevant to the ultra diverse Sun Valley neighborhood.

Ramirez said the market is beneficial to Sun Valley residents, who have lived in a food desert for decades. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, an area is considered a food desert when at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the area population, lives more than one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store.

Residents have been reliant on 7-11 for quick meals and expensive groceries or a King Soopers on Speer Boulevard and West 13th Avenue, which is about two miles away from Decatur Fresh. That's about an eight-minute drive, if residents have a car, a 20- to 30-minute bus ride or a 30- to 40-minute walk, according to Google Maps.

Selena Ramirez works at Sun Valley's Decatur Fresh market. Nov. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"A couple of years ago they knocked down a Family Dollar, which really sucked because that's where a lot of us [bought] groceries," Ramirez said. "It's still sitting there as an empty lot. So we're reliant on 7-11, which isn't very cheap and all microwave food."

The market is a social enterprise of Denver Housing Authority and operated by the Youth Employment Academy, a nonprofit organization working with youth through art, education and employment training. Besides providing the neighborhood with affordable food, the market will also train and employ young residents of the public housing development.

It sits on the first floor of Gateway South, a 92-unit affordable and market-rate housing building that's a part of Denver Housing Authority's redevelopment of Sun Valley, which has been underway since 2018.

In a $240 million, multi-year project, DHA is ultimately replacing 333 units of public housing (those old red brick buildings) and adding over 950 homes to house over 2,500 residents. Gateway South and Gateway North, a 95-unit mix affordability building, are part of those new homes.

Old Denver Housing Authority homes set for demolition seen from inside Sun Valley's Decatur Fresh market. Nov. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

"We wanted to [build Decatur Fresh] early on in the development because we knew it was such a need," said Annie Hancock, Interim Director of Community Connections at DHA. "It was incorporated into our first phase of housing which is the Gateway North and Gateway South buildings. We're tracking to get all of our residents back in there and bring new people to the neighborhood, creating that mixed income community."

Besides the market, DHA has also addressed Sun Valley's food desert needs through the Grow Garden, an urban farm along the South Platte River. The garden is run through a collaboration with the Denver Botanic Gardens, and will help stock Decatur Fresh's produce section.

Hancock said the market is DHA's second social enterprise, the first being Osage Cafe in Lincoln Park. The cafe will be supplying Decatur Fresh with some of it's grab-and-go options.

Veggies for sale at Sun Valley's Decatur Fresh market. Nov. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

She also said as DHA continues to develop areas of West Denver, including the Mariposa development, the agency may consider adding more social enterprise projects.

For now, the focus is on Decatur Fresh and keeping prices low.

"We're working to keep prices as low as possible and looking for grants to gap that overhead to support staffing and cost of goods," Hancock said. "We're keeping our margins very low and trying to ensure that prices feel lower than what you see at a grocery store or a Walmart. We're also in the process of being able to accept SNAP, so we'll be able to provide additional affordability."

Hancock said the store is still growing and will continue to grow, especially in terms of culturally relevant food, as residents make their way back into the neighborhood.

While giving residents access to affordable and healthy food options is important, the idea becomes moot if it's not what residents eat, Hancock said.

Sun Valley's Decatur Fresh market sits at the base of a new Denver Housing Authority apartment tower. Nov. 4, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Ramirez said residents have been sending the store photos of what's in their pantries and some of the other employees are taking management to other stores to show them more options. Hancock said the more feedback the store receives, the more DHA can look into finding vendors for those options.

"More Vietnamese families can start coming in or more Muslim families, so we want to keep evolving," Ramirez said. "We want to make sure everybody feels accommodated, especially since our community is so diverse."

Two days after the store opened, it was quiet during the early afternoon. Two customers strolled in to see what the new space was about and seemed excited about the options.

Ramirez said in the future she hopes more people take notice of the store and travel a few steps from their doors to take advantage of the prices.

"I hope that everybody who is here sees that it's a great thing and that everybody has access to affordable groceries and that they [don't have] to go all the way down to 13th and Speer," Ramirez said. "They can come right downstairs to grab a few things to make a meal. People should know where their next meal is going to come from and not have to break their pockets. I really hope it takes off."

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