By Veronica Penney

Food desert. If you’ve never heard the term before, it refers to communities with “limited access to supermarkets, supercenters, grocery stores, or other sources of healthy and affordable food.” According to the USDA, 18.3 million Americans live in food deserts, contributing to higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity among residents.

The Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods comprise one of Denver’s food deserts, and The GrowHaus’ mission is to combat it. Located off of E 47th Ave and York Street, the 20,000 square-foot greenhouse farm grows high quality, local produce and acts as an educational center for the community.

“When you’re empowering a community, you really want to be integrating them into the systems that they don’t have access to,” explains Maddie Onofrio, a Communications Intern at The GrowHaus.

Raised planters mimic a natural growing pattern and foster symbiotic relationships. Photos by Veronica Penney

Raised planters mimic a natural growing pattern and foster symbiotic relationships. Photos by Veronica Penney

The GrowHaus emphasized community involvement from the beginning, holding town halls to get feedback, creating classes based on community wishes, and offering food options tailored to the needs of the residents.

For example, the in-house Mercado de al Lado marketplace sources food locally whenever possible, but also stocks staple ingredients that can be difficult to find in the Denver area. “Since this community is highly Hispanic, we try and tailor the food that we offer to their cultural diet, but some things, like avocados, we do outsource,” explains Onofrio.

Mercado de al Lado. Photos by Veronica Penney

Mercado de al Lado. Photos by Veronica Penney

The heart of The GrowHaus lies in food production. The greenhouse contains a mushroom farm, a 5,000 square foot hydroponics lettuce garden that produces 1,200 heads of leafy greens per week, and a 3,200 square foot aquaponics growing system. Fresh produce is available at the Mercado de al Lado, but the GrowHaus also distributes food to local grocery stores and restaurants.

The GrowHaus' 5,000 square foot hydroponics farm. Photos by Veronica Penney

The GrowHaus’ 5,000 square foot hydroponics farm. Photos by Veronica Penney

The weekly food box program is another way that The GrowHaus makes high quality food accessible to the community. “It’s done on a sliding scale pricing structure, so in the 80216 zip, which is the Elyria-Swansea and Globeville area, they can come in and just tell us their zip code and they basically get the food at wholesale pricing,” says Onofrio.

Food boxes come in two sizes—a family box, which will feed 3-4 people, and a basic box, which is intended for 1-2 people. The boxes are filled with GrowHaus produce, eggs, and local bread from Blue Point Bakery. Subscribers simply pay ahead, then pick up their box during the pickup time at their chosen location.

For other Denver residents, the boxes will cost a little more, but proceeds “help to fund  Cosechando Salud, [The GrowHaus’] free grocery program and cooking class, and Mercado de al Lado, our neighborhood market with special discounts for residents of the communities of Elyria-Swansea and Globeville.” 

Raised planters mimic a natural growing pattern and foster symbiotic relationships.

Raised planters mimic a natural growing pattern and foster symbiotic relationships.

Aside from food production, food education is also a large piece of The GrowHaus’ mission. Monthly fee-based classes are open to the public and cover topics such as square foot gardening, mushroom basics, and cheesemaking. Service learning courses, like the Seed2Seed program, educate young adults on the basics of agriculture, allowing them to get an introduction to food that they can share with their parents and siblings.

There is also a pantry-style program for people who cannot afford food boxes. In exchange for attending one of the Monday night nutrition courses, residents can earn a free food box to take home to prepare their own fresh and healthy meals.

“The idea behind that is we really want people to know how to use what you’re giving them. You don’t want to throw someone some kale and not know how to use it and just throw it out, and not get those nutrients,” says Onofrio.