Following the death of her husband last year, 54-year-old Sheila Monroe found herself looking for stability, she said. It was Metro Caring, a Denver-based nonprofit organization, that gave her the support she sought.
“Metro Caring has been really a lifesaver to me,” said Monroe, of Denver. She got a job stocking shelves there from roughly October through December, she said. “They gave me that job experience that I needed when I first started out on my own.”
Metro Caring is one of multiple anti-hunger organizations involved in the Denver Community Food Access Coalition that aim to create economic stability for community members as a way to prevent food insecurity — a term that refers to a lack of consistent access to food, particularly fresh, nutritious food.
An estimated one in three Coloradans is food insecure, according to an April 2021 survey conducted by Hunger Free Colorado, a statewide nonprofit organization and member of the coalition. Since the beginning of the pandemic, food insecurity rose from 11% of Denver’s population to an estimated 33%, the city reported.
“Our mission is to end hunger at its root, and that root we have identified as poverty,” said Brizai Gomez Cortes, the community activator at Metro Caring.
The nonprofit organization serves people throughout the Denver area through its fresh foods market, cooking classes, rental assistance, policy advocacy and other services. From August through December last year, Metro Caring served about 5,700 people from the 80205 zip code, she said.
Metro Caring was also one of the founding members of the Denver Community Food Access Coalition, a collection of nine metro Denver organizations that work together to address food insecurity.
The organizations offer different approaches to addressing food access and equity, said Stefan Karg, the coalition’s program manager and co-facilitator. One of those approaches is focusing on building community wealth, such as by hiring local residents to work for the organizations and coalition.
“We’re helping the folks who actually are experiencing food insecurity — the communities that are experiencing food insecurity — be able to find new ways of getting out of food insecurity,” said Karg, who is also the program manager at Sprout City Farms, another coalition member.
The main barriers to accessing nutritious food for Metro Caring clients include transportation, the minimum wage and housing, Gomez Cortes said.
The cost of renting a one-bedroom in Denver has increased by 10.87% year-over-year, according to a February report by Rent.com. The costs of fuel, clothing and food have also risen as consumer prices in metro Denver increased by 7.9% between January 2021 and January of this year.
“Poverty shouldn’t be punished”
The increasing cost of living is why Laurie-Ann Mills, 55, shares a Denver apartment with her 32-year-old son. She can’t afford to live alone, she said, and she receives food assistance from Metro Caring.
“People operate underneath this assumption that everyone has a food budget. And that is such a myth,” Mills said. “For most of us, our food stamps are our food budget.”
In March 2018, Mills got involved with Metro Caring, where she now volunteers as a community activist advocating for legislation on issues like housing, voting rights and fair wages, she said. She hopes recipients of Metro Carings’ services gain a sense of dignity, she said, addressing stigmas that can face people receiving support.
“No matter how hard you work for minimum wage, somebody thinks you’re doing something wrong,” Mills said. “It’s not a defect in my personality; it’s a defect in this system. Poverty shouldn’t be punished.”
One of the ways Metro Caring is helping residents like Mills in the long-term is by supporting their small businesses, such as through offering micro-grants and hosting pop-up markets that provide a space for vendors to sell their items.
“That’s why the pop-ups are awesome because, I mean, basically it’s a free space to sell and to be with your community,” said Mills, who runs a small business called My Bonnie Annie Laurie.
In the next three years, Metro Caring aims to start redeveloping its lot and create new facilities such as a space for businesses and a community kitchen, Gomez Cortes said. “We’re dreaming big,” she said.
“The building of our own solutions”
It’s a dream that the nonprofit Re:Vision, another member of the Denver Community Food Access Coalition, enacted through establishing the RISE Westwood Campus.
The campus was originally a junkyard when Re:Vision purchased the space, said executive director JoAnna Cintrón. After renovation, the campus now includes an urban farm, a commercial kitchen, the Cultura Craft Chocolate business that also houses the Hecho en Westwood organization, and a large building that houses the nonprofit D3 Arts.
“Re:Vision exists to cultivate local food systems, develop local leaders and build a local economy,” Cintrón said. “Building wealth comes from the building of our own solutions to the problems that we seek to fix.”
Re:Vision serves the Westwood neighborhood, a predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American area with mostly Spanish-dominant residents and families, Cintrón said.
“We’re very focused on Latino culture and preserving the Latino culture here in Westwood, first and foremost,” Cintrón said.
It’s also one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Denver, she said. According to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, from 2013 to 2017, 28.91% of families in the Westwood neighborhood were below the federal poverty level, compared to 4.52% of families in Denver.
“The lack of food access is because of the systemic barriers and the systemic issues that have created a low-income neighborhood,” Cintrón said, describing the area as a “food apartheid.”
“There are no grocery stores around here,” she said. “That’s why we built our garden program.”
Since 2009, Re:Vision has established more than 2,000 household gardens across 12 neighborhoods, Cintrón said, and averages about 200 gardens per year. To help residents create their gardens and connect with resources, Re:Vision has hired six community members to work as “promotoras,” or promoters of health, and they are paired with about 30 families each.
It’s through collaboration that change is possible, said Gomez Cortes, who, in addition to working at Metro Caring, is also a co-facilitator for the Denver Community Food Access Coalition.
“I believe together, we can truly cause an impact that’s long-lasting,” she said.
Gomez Cortes, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient who experienced food insecurity throughout her childhood, said she wished her family had an organization like Metro Caring to turn to when they needed it. Her work has been healing, she said, as she helps residents like Laurie-Ann Mills and Sheila Monroe, who is now applying to be a peer specialist for a homeless coalition, support themselves and their community.
“I walked into this building and found my voice,” Mills said. “This is the place that holds my heart.”