One nonprofit’s answer to a ‘food desert’ in Denver

The GrowHaus – an innovative indoor farm, marketplace, and educational center – emphasizes the importance of access to healthy food, and the potential of food to transform.

David Karas
Coby Gould is executive director and cofounder of The GrowHaus, a nonprofit indoor farm in Denver that’s tackling the challenges of urban food deserts on several fronts.

The north Denver neighborhoods of Elyria-Swansea and Globeville have more than 10,000 residents – but not a single full-service grocery store. The area has high pollution rates and one of the lowest levels of average household income in the city.

And yet in the center of this historically working-class community rises a sort of oasis: a small, colorful market offering a range of fresh produce, healthy ingredients, and other groceries.

The market, known as Mercado de al Lado, is part of The GrowHaus – an innovative indoor farm, marketplace, and educational center. The nonprofit, established in 2009, emphasizes the importance of access to healthy food, and the potential of food to transform.

“How can we say that we have this amazing, healthy city, and boast our outdoors life, but we have these communities that don’t have access to healthy food?” says Coby Gould, executive director and cofounder of The GrowHaus. “We are a food-based organization, but ultimately we’re a community development organization – and we use food as the tool, food as the lens.”

The GrowHaus is based in a rehabbed, 20,000-square-foot space that was formerly a flower distribution center. It's surrounded by factories, highways, and rail lines, and the whistle of a freight train interrupted Mr. Gould's comments.

The headquarters includes a hydroponics farm, which yields leafy greens at an average of 1,200 heads per week, along with an aquaponics farm and a mushroom farm. The property also features a fruit and vegetable nursery for community members and an incubator space for residents seeking to start their own businesses around food production.

“Our purpose is really to be a food access center,” Gould says. “You can buy a full meal, or a handful of meals, in the same place.”

In addition to the popular market that serves more than 100 families each week, The GrowHaus offers boxes of produce that are as organic and locally sourced as possible. While about 100 boxes are sold weekly, another 50 are provided, free of charge, to families in need.

Complementing the organization’s production and distribution functions are its educational efforts. More than 2,000 students each year participate in a variety of programs through The GrowHaus, and teens can develop leadership around issues of food, social justice, and entrepreneurship. The nonprofit also has a promotora program, in which a resident on staff helps educate her neighbors about food and nutrition and provides connections to screenings and other resources.

“If residents are the ones that have the knowledge and they are telling their friends,... it is so much more impactful,” Gould says. “That education is culturally appropriate and from someone you trust.”

A Denver native, Gould had his introduction to service at a young age, when his mother would take him along as she provided meals to the homeless.

“That was my first experience with privilege,” he recalls, “and this idea that some people have and some people don’t.”

Later, he was involved in conflict resolution work with Israeli and Palestinian youths, which helped to shine a light on the role that resources play in shaping and fueling conflict. As he continued in the nonprofit sector, Gould set his sights on food.

“Food can be a lens to look at other social issues, but is also the thing that brings people together,” he says.

Paul Washington is executive director of the Denver Office of Economic Development, which has partnered with Gould and The GrowHaus for years.

“They have had a profound impact,” Mr. Washington says. “They have been such a leader in having delivered proven models for healthy food access.”

He lauds the organization’s comprehensive approach.

“Healthy food access in and of itself is not going to deliver the results that we intend,” he says. “There has to be an educational process to healthy food access initiatives.”

Gould is passionate about the work he does with The GrowHaus each day. Still, he says, the ultimate goal is for the staff to be replaced by residents who can move the organization forward on their own – and for the common good.

“When we started on this journey, we said our intention was to work ourselves out of a job, and that this would be run by residents,” he says. “It is still very much the intent.”

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