What's Working

'Desert' Living
Denver Digs Deep into Food Policies

  What's Working - Summer 2011 - 'Desert' Living

By Rebecca Jones
Photography by Dan Sidor

Michelle Schoen feels trapped in a vicious food cycle. She is 44, obese and diabetic, conditions she knows are food-related. She would like to get fresh fruits and vegetables onto to her plate regularly to improve her health.

Because of poor health, both Schoen and her husband gave up driving 13 years ago. To get to a full-service grocery store, she must take the bus or catch a ride from friends who drive. The smaller stores that are within walking distance of the Schoens' home sell little fresh produce.

"So we eat a lot of frozen food," Schoen says. "They're easier to carry and they weigh less when you carry them home in a shopping bag on the bus."

The Schoens live in Denver's Westwood neighborhood, near Alameda Avenue and Morrison Road. The neighborhood, one of the city's poorest, is a "food desert," a swath of town in which grocery stores are absent, and the convenience stores carry mostly processed food.

It's a situation repeated in many communities around the state. Small grocery stores that once served urban neighborhoods and rural communities have largely disappeared as the grocery industry moved to a mega-store model. That model works well in suburbs and for families who own cars, but it leaves many struggling to get access to nutritious food. A 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that nearly 6 percent of Americans have food access problems.

But it doesn't have to be this way, city officials say. The Denver Healthy Food Access Initiative grew out of efforts to bring a grocery store to Denver's Park Hill, a neighborhood that tried for years to attract a market without success.

The answer, city officials believe, is to abandon the neighborhood approach and instead focus on changing policies at the city and state level.

"If you keep putting plants in a garden and they keep dying, you need to dig up the bed and fortify the underlying environment," says Stacey McConlogue, program manager for the Denver Healthy People Program, part of Denver's Department of Environmental Health. She oversees the food access initiative, which is funded by a three-year grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. "That's what a policy approach will do. This is a market failure. Grocery stores can't afford to build and address the need for food in those neighborhoods."

The initiative last year convened grocers, government officials and community organizations to examine what barriers exist and what policy changes might offer solutions. Recommendations are due later this summer, but the initiative has identified barriers. They include a lack of suitable locations for stores, a lack of transportation among potential shoppers, burdensome city regulations, difficulty obtaining financing and the challenges of making small stores profitable. Plus, there is Colorado's abysmal rate of food-stamp participation. In Denver, for example, only 43 percent of eligible individuals receive food stamps, which dramatically decreases spending in city grocery stores.

Those are the same issues food retailers around the country face, yet other places are overcoming them. One strategy that has worked elsewhere is the creation of a fresh food financing fund that makes low-interest loans or grants to retailers willing to open in certain neighborhoods.

"We're hashing out what policy recommendations really would make a difference here," McConlogue says. "We want to recommend things that are achievable, not pie in the sky that won't happen."

In addition, the city has formed a Sustainable Food Policy Council, with members appointed by the mayor, to advise the city on food issues. "Looking at grocery stores is just one little piece that will rise and fall over time," McConlogue says. "But having a permanent larger-picture group around food will ... keep it all from being undone later. It will help us move forward.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Denver Healthy Food Access project received a three-year grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to identify barriers and opportunities to bringing fresh fruit, vegetables and other essential foods to low-income Denver neighborhoods that lack such amenities. In addition, the project receives targeted assistance from LiveWell communities, which the Foundation also funds.