Meet Sun Valley Community Kitchen, An Oasis in a Denver Food Desert

The Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center has served the youth of the Sun Valley neighborhood for the last five years. Since opening, owner Glenn Harper has witnessed a massive change in the neighborhood infrastructure and an influx of interest in the neighborhood. Just as The Highland and RiNo neighborhoods have undergone expansion and development in recent years, the residents of Sun Valley now find themselves amidst one of the city’s largest ongoing commercial and residential redevelopment projects. Along with the demolition and rebuild of the neighborhood’s subsidized housing, the valley has become home to the renovated Ironworks event space and the soon-to-be Meow Wolf art exhibit amongst dozens of other developmental construction projects.

READ: How Sun Valley Will Change in the Next Five Years

The area surrounding the community center has arguably been considered one of the inner city’s more impoverished neighborhoods but is now undergoing the first-hand effects of over a billion dollars in stimulus. The poverty rate in Sun Valley has historically been five times higher than the City of Denver as a whole, with 70 percent of residents living in poverty compared to almost 15 percent for all Denver residents. Amidst the flood of new ideas, businesses and people migrating by the masses to and from the neighborhood, The Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center remains an unchanged staple for at-risk families to gain access to fresh produce, enroll in extracurricular enrichment and ultimately build a brighter future for the youth and families in the area.

Harper was a longtime resident of Sun Valley before owning and operating The Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center and declaring a moral obligation to help his neighbors gain access to a healthy food source. Harper ran Fresh Fries in the early 2000s — a food truck operation that graced the Front Range music festival scene during the summer months — which acted as the precursor to the Community Kitchen. The truck built a name for itself serving up gourmet crispy spuds for crowds of hungry festival-goers and for Harper, business was good. 

While exploring Sun Valley in early 2011 — searching for real estate to help expand Fresh Fries — Harper stumbled upon a vacant grocery store in the heart of Sun Valley. The building came complete with a full-sized commercial kitchen — a seemingly perfect expansion for a blossoming food truck operation. At the time, Harper had yet to discover that the empty building at Decatur Street and West Holden Place functioned as the only outlet for fresh produce within a mile of the neighborhood’s residential housing — which technically classifies Sun Valley as a food desert. The added strain of traveling over a mile for healthy food takes a heavy toll on families already struggling to put food on the table — Harper wanted to offer residents a solution.

After finalizing the acquisition of the empty grocery in 2011, the building remained dormant for several years while Harper reflected on the necessities of the neighborhood and divulged his plan to repurpose the old grocer to better serve his community.

From the curb at Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center

Following a cosmetic remodeling and a major rebranding — Harper founded Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center as a non-profit organization and opened doors to the public in early 2013. Rather than dedicating the new real estate to the mobile Fresh Fries operation, Harper established a more long-term relationship with his food and the neighbors in Sun Valley. The non-profit is committed to making at-risk and low-income residents feel supported, safe and connected. The center now offers educational and creative cooking, art and music classes, counseling and mentoring programs and in more recent months a no-cost grocery program and a low-cost breakfast and lunch service. Harper and his team are dedicated to a social obligation through which they aim to nurture a brighter future for the residents living in the Sun Valley neighborhood as it undergoes change.

“We have peeled a lot of potatoes to get to this point,” said Harper

The Center funds youth cooking classes and choir lessons over the weekends where children can spend hands-on time with the in-house chef and other experienced staff members to learn things like knife skills, how to cook new recipes, constructive art projects and even vocal coaching. An open enrollment after-school learning-lab is available during the weekdays where young adults are encouraged to extend their learning outside the classroom. The kitchen prepares 60 charitable meals for the youth in the neighborhood during the week. Access to healthy food is a key element of the operation but the long-term aim here is to offer young adults a stepping stone to propel themselves into the real world with the skills they need to succeed. Currently, the kitchen is able to employ a handful of youth from the neighborhood to work the front and back-of-house operations for the kitchen. Many of the teen employees have earned their aprons — graduating from participants of the weekend cooking class to become some of Denver’s youngest culinary minds and on-staff chefs. 

“Each of the youth in our program took the initiative to come in and ask for a job when we opened the Kitchen. Being able to provide employment opportunities for them is one of the things we’re most excited about,” commented Daisy Wiberg, director of operations at the Center. 

In the five years since opening the doors, the organization has fostered relationships with several of Denver’s highly regarded nonprofits, charity organizations and well-intentioned businesses in order to make keep cost low and product healthy, fresh and consistent. Current partnerships include Denver Food Rescue, Seattle Fish Co., We Don’t Waste and Denver Urban Gardens to name drop a fraction of the involved parties committed to the cause. Collaboration and donation are key components for the kitchen and they largely shape what is available on the made-to-order items during the low-cost breakfast and lunch service. Similarly, food donation, charitable contribution and volunteer work are what keep menu prices down and ultimately turn the gears for this non-profit.  

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Harper on-boarded classically trained chef Ruben Valentin of The Culinary Institute of America and director of operations Daisy Wiberg of Love Light & Melody to help launch a low-cost breakfast and lunch service from the commercial kitchen in late 2018. The team has curated two quaint, yet diverse menus comprised of healthy recipes and accessible ingredients that are now offered to the general public throughout the work week. 

Through the front doors, guests meet a cafeteria-style dining area that leads way to an open kitchen and a hand-sketched chalk menu. Offerings from the menu include approachable handhelds — sandwiches, burritos, bahn mi, fruit smoothies and coffee and are all available over the counter at price points under $10. The inspiration for menu items has developed over years of designing and teaching cooking curriculum on a budget. Wiberg noted, “this [low-cost lunch/dinner service] has been a huge success in the first six weeks, but I think that it is really a testament to years of relationship building and getting to know the community.”

In addition to offering low-cost menu items, the kitchen is able to highlight a chef from within the community every Thursday. An additional menu is melded from the mind of a local chef to supplement the set menu and often features a cultural cuisine they are familiar with. Proceeds from the featured menu are allocated to fund the guest chef’s small business. Putting a fresh mind behind the burners each week not only keeps the menu interesting but introduces diverse flavors and creates great exposure for the featured chef and their small businesses.

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The Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center leads by example when it comes to maintaining a healthy relationship in a community faced with change. Housing redevelopment, new commercial buildings and a marked influx in wealth have the potential to displace some original residents of Sun Valley. Buildings are being demolished and rebuilt up and down the block, but Harper has committed his kitchen for the long run and wants nothing more than to nurture a sense of belonging amongst the people of the community.

The staff relies on the hands of volunteers to keep the program afloat. The season of giving has rolled in with the cold months and lending a hand at the Sun Valley Kitchen is a great way to explore your passion for cooking and invest time in the future of Denver’s youth. For information on the community center, volunteering, the low-cost lunch/dinner service, weekend cooking classes or to sign-up to volunteer visit Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center.

Sun Valley Kitchen + Community Center is located at 1260 Decatur St, Denver. Low-cost breakfast is served to the public Mon – Fri, 6 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. and Low-cost lunch is served Mon – Fri, 10:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. 

All Photography by Samantha Hines