How a Grocery Store is Becoming a Symbol of Gentrification in a Denver Food Desert

When Candi CdeBaca returned to live in her childhood home in the Globeville Elyria-Swansea area of Denver, a lot had changed in her life. She had overcome the challenges of growing up poor, earned a bachelors and masters degree from Denver University and even started her own nonprofit called Project VOYCE that trains, employs and organizes youth from underserved areas of Denver. But despite all the changes she’s seen in her life, not much has changed for her neighborhood. In particular, access to healthy eating continues to be a huge barrier — just as it was for CdeBaca.

“My mom was on welfare, so we got food stamps. So there were a bunch of barriers to healthy eating, but one of them was we didn’t live close to a grocery store,” she said. As a result, she often found herself eating incomplete and cheap meals.

“When I got a job at 14, I would try to stretch my money so I literally ate a $1 cheeseburger and $1 fry everyday,” she said. Today, many of the kids she works with share similar stories, including one teenager who admitted to never drinking a full glass of water in her life — just juice or soda.

“My staff was blown away because I told them I was exactly the same. I didn’t drink a glass of water until I was in college,” said CdeBaca.

Like many kids she encounters today, she was suffering from a poor diet. She didn’t realize it until she got to college and finally had access to a healthy one. “I gained 45 pounds,” she said. “When I look back on pictures of myself, I was skin and bones.”

Despite the similarities between CdeBaca’s experience and kids she meets today, there is one difference in the Globeville neighborhood — there’s now a nearby grocery store.

The Grocery Store

Mayor Michael Hancock on the day of the store’s opening. Photo by Brittany Werges.


Natural Grocers opened on Thursday, July 27, 2017, on the corner of 38th Street and Brighton Boulevard. Sometimes referred to as the RiNo Natural Grocers, the store sits right outside the boundary of the Globeville neighborhood. On paper, the opening of the grocery store was good news. For decades the area has been designated as a “food desert” because the low-income area didn’t have nearby access to a full-service grocery store within a mile. Now that Natural Grocers has opened, the area’s designation as a food desert has been blurred. But despite this, not much has changed for the neighborhood because significant barriers to access still remain.
According to a survey conducted by a neighborhood organization called the GES Coalition, 52 percent of Globeville residents make less than $25,000 a year — that’s less than half of Denver’s median income ($53,637 as of 2015). As a result, a natural food store that specializes in organic and responsibly sourced food omits the cheapest, commercialized food options from its shelves. For example, a trip to the store you won’t find the Wonder Bread or Lay’s Potato chips of the world. Rather, if you venture into the interior aisles of Natural Grocers, you find things more along the lines of pricey bags of tortilla chips ground using “volcanic stones” and chicken stock trendily masked as bone broth. The perimeter of the store can be a different story, though. Cross-referencing items like milk, eggs and bananas with Kings Soopers, Natural Grocers cheapest options are not much more expensive (its more high-end options are another story, though). These whole foods are what the neighborhood needs — not the processed items where you mostly pay for the clever marketing. But as Rey Gallegos, a Globeville resident and member of the GES Coalition, pointed out those quarters and dimes can add up quick for someone on a tight budget.
“If you’re struggling to pay your rent or your mortgage, and there are chicken nuggets for $1.29, they are going for the chicken nuggets rather than not paying their rent or doctor bill,” said Gallegos.
Gallegos explained that if you want to get to the heart of the issue with Natural Grocers, you have to first look at unstable housing situation in Globeville. According to the Coalition’s report, the neighborhood is at a very high risk of displacement due to rising rent and increased development of the area. Furthermore, out of the 500 people surveyed, 49 percent are renters with half having no lease at all. This, as Gallegos explained, shifts priorities in a household.
But even if prices dropped at Natural Grocers, additional barriers remain.

A Symbol Of Gentrification

Natural Grocers during construction. Photo by Brittany Werges.

Maria Campos was a resident of Globeville for 30 years until she was recently forced to move to find affordable housing. But even after her recent relocation, Campos continues to fight for her neighborhood as a part of the GES Coalition. She, like many in the area, is fed up with the constant abuse she’s seen her neighborhood suffer over the years. Because of the negative history between the area and the city, she is wary of forthcoming development projects like the expansion of I-70 or the redevelopment of the National Western Complex. As a result, she is apprehensive about the grocery store because to her, it’s another project that focuses on the developing Denver, instead of helping those currently living there.
“When [the neighborhood] thinks about [Natural Grocers] they see it as one more thing that is not for them. They are putting in sidewalks after 50 years without sidewalks. Why just now? They know the money that is going to preventing the displacements [from the I-70 expansion] are pennies compared to the billions putting into the [I-70] project, so the feeling is if so much money is being put into the project with almost no money into keeping people safe, the project is not for them… They feel the same way about Natural Grocers. I am sure it is nice and they have good stuff. But it’s not a threat of gentrification it’s more of the symbol of it already have happened.”
Nola Miguel, another GES Coalition member agrees, stating that while she thinks some people are curious about the store, many in the neighborhood see it as a joke.
“There’s a lot of sarcasm like, ‘oh yeah there’s a Natural Grocers no one is going to go to’ but there’s also a lot of curiosity. It feels like a slap in the face because it’s for those people [in RiNo]. Globeville is an afterthought,” she said.
Even CdeBaca — a young, well-educated professional — feels the store is too expensive for her, and she sees it as a continued divide between old and new Denver.
“There’s that really stark contrast where you have a Natural Grocers on the side of the tracks where you’re seeing brand new buildings — some of them not even inhabited yet for people who don’t even exist yet. Right on the other side, not much as changed,” CdeBaca said. “I have two degrees, and I can’t afford it!”
This disassociation has already created a wedge for some to accept the store. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been people on both sides of the divide trying to dissolve this tension.

Proposed Solutions

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According to Alan Lewis — director of special projects at Natural Grocers — opening the 38th Street Natural Grocers was intended to help alleviate the lack of healthy food options in the area. “Our deep DNA focus is north and east of the store,” said Lewis in reference to Globeville Elyria-Swansea area. 
However, he admits that when they chose the site five years ago, they knew the area would likely develop enough to support the new outpost. “Putting this store here was definitely a bet on the next five years,” he said. When such comments are brought up to the GES group, there’s often an eye roll with a wave of the hand — a reciprocal dismissal. Even though there’s a general underlying tension between the neighborhood and the new grocery store, they’ve managed to foster open communication.

Two of the people Lewis has been meeting with from the start include Gallegos with the GES Coalition and Armando Payan. Like Gallegos, Payan is a resident of the Globeville area and an active community member. Both agreed to discuss the store with Lewis back in 2015. Their discussions have mainly revolved around how to better connect the community with the store. Both men have described Lewis’ involvement as positive and proactive and have been vocal and open with him about their concerns.

As Payan explained, making the neighborhood feel welcomed can make a huge difference. He suggested creating a part of the store where the residents may feel invited by providing discounted items that resonate with the majority Latino population and maybe adding Globeville to the name of the store.

“The way you are going to change people’s minds is to make it appealing and attractive,” said Payan. “Change the name. Add a mural. Those would be simple changes that would make a huge difference. Something to bring in some neighborhood awareness.”

Gallegos has echoed some of these sentiments and has discussed taking the cooking class he teaches at Garden Place Elementary to Natural Grocers so kids can get more exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables.

But so far none of the suggestions have made their way into the store. Now, months after opening, many including Payan and Gallegos are concerned that what Natural Grocers offers is largely talk. 

“There are no discounts for [the] community, still no community interest areas in the store and there still has not been any change in the store as far as prices or community outreach,” said Gallegos in an email exchange last week.

But Lewis explained that the way Natural Grocer intends to help is by being a resource for the community and bolster other ongoing projects. For example, Gallegos speaks of wanting to open a farmer’s market in Globeville and expand his cooking class. Lewis said that he could help by giving them more access to the store’s educational space and potentially connecting some of their suppliers to provide cheaper products to the farmers market. Lewis calls this “catalyzing the right idea at the right time” and points to the success he has had with small producers he has supported like Cottonwood Creek Farms as a good example. Lewis has also had conversations about working with other community organizations like The Growhaus, but like the GES, nothing has come to fruition yet.

Overall Natural Grocers strategy is to focus primarily on outreach outside of the store and they appear to be unwilling (or at least slow-moving) to find more robust ways to invite these low-income families within its walls. For the neighborhood, this, in particular, continues to cement the idea that the Natural Grocers is not for them, nor was it ever intended to be. Even Payan, who’s been the most optimistic and open about the store has called its lack of effort “disappointing.”

Lewis argues that while the store offers a lot of opportunities, it’s not how the food desert issue will be resolved.  “It’s not a full solution to a fundamental economic problem in the country,” said Lewis. “We’re doing our part, but we can’t do it on our own.”

While it’s debatable if Natural Grocers is currently doing its part to support the neighborhood, it is true that the burden to fix the neighborhood’s food desert problem shouldn’t be placed solely on them. And fortunately, it’s not.

The Future: Denver’s Food Vision

Two years ago, the city created a new position called the manager of food system development for the Office of Economic Development. That long, clunky title belongs to Blake Angelo, a former consultant who has worked with everyone from Colorado State University to Kaiser and the City of Boulder to develop grants and provide research-driven plans to support local food systems. Angelo’s current job to put forth a plan to create a better Denver food system by improving how food in Denver gets from farmers and ranchers to individuals and families.

In 2016 a baseline report of Denver’s food system was developed to identify trends and challenges the food system might face, and now the office the released its food vision that lays out a what the city hopes to achieve when building Denver’s food system. The 36-page document essentially explains the city hopes to create a more inclusive, diverse food system that streamlines how healthier and local foods get to the people of Denver. Eventually, this vision will turn into an action plan that will be released by the end of this year, detailing how they will achieve this goal. Currently, some of the projects are underway and focus on the areas with the most need, including Globeville. Many of those projects are more grassroots and work with corner stores to get fresh fruits and vegetables in the aisles and programs like Uncharted which works with companies like Eat Five, which provide Globeville with produce boxes, to help improve food access in the area.

But alongside these grassroots initiatives, there was also a goal to bring a grocery store to food deserts in Denver. The city has even secured $3 million to do so (which some argue is not enough). But when we spoke with Angelo and Lewis, neither could confirm that they met to discuss Natural Grocers opening in the area. The city said the store never reached out, and Lewis explained the store didn’t need funds.

But despite the lack of communication, a lot of their projected initiatives line up. Natural Grocers is a long-time supporter of organic and local produce and is known to take small local producers and help them sell directly to local customers.  Even its five founding principles read exactly like the issues that the city is trying to solve in its Denver food plan. Mayor Michael Hancock even commented on the day of the grocery store opening that he hopes the store becomes a resource for the area.

“I hope that it not necessarily changes Globeville for the worst, but it changes it for the good … It has been a food desert, particularly when it comes to healthy foods, and I think when you find neighborhoods that have been perennially overlooked and neglected typically you find if there is food there it isn’t very healthy. So I think Natural Grocers is a natural fit for this area to help quite frankly add the healthier options that we all need. So I am excited about what this will bring to this area of town. For all residents that live here.”

According to both parties, no partnerships have been formed yet, but they are now in contact.

As a result, the relationship between the city and Natural Grocers, as well as the neighborhood, sits in limbo. For those in the affected community, the sentiment that the store is not there for them continues to grow. This only further drives a wedge between an area that, as the mayor explains, has been perennially overlooked. As it stands, a grocery store, which should be an oasis in a food desert, has become a symbol that gentrification is not on the horizon — it’s already planted its roots.