On a warm August morning, the line at Growing Home’s food pantry is already long. People start gathering at the back of the building in Westminster up to two hours before the doors open. They’re there to shop for nutritious foods they otherwise struggle to afford.
Richard Cruz and Cassandra Crockett are among those who have come for help. They live together in Thornton. Cruz works full time as a delivery driver. Crockett used to work full time as a chef but had to stop due to a disability and she ran into health insurance problems.
“It was just too much and I couldn’t get my medicine and you have to wait so many days to get on insurance. This time, it broke me down,” Crockett said.
Even with Cruz putting in extra hours, the couple rely on Growing Home’s food pantry. They have two kids at home.
“Everytime you go to the store, food prices go up,” Cruz said.
The two figure out ways to stretch what they have.
“Always have a bag of potatoes,” said Cruz.
Cruz and Crockett aren’t alone.
One in eight residents and one in five children in surrounding Adams County face food insecurity, according to the local Health Department.
Adams County includes Northglenn, Thornton, Westminster and a wide array of suburbs and rural areas.
Prices of food increased by 10.3% in 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks inflation. And, in the first half of 2023, they increased by 8.2%.
In addition to prices, distance is a factor in getting good food. For Cruz and Crockett, the closest grocery store is five minutes’ drive away. But without a car, it’s at least a 20 minute walk each way.
Luckily, they can use their car.
Like Cruz and Crockett, across the region, there are pockets where residents must travel over a mile to get to a grocery store like King Soopers, Safeway or Walmart. In some instances, that distance can be closer to 2-3 miles.
It may not sound like a big of distance, but a mile can be the difference between regular access to nutritious food, limited access —or none at all.
Many in need can’t afford cars or can’t drive for other reasons — including their health — and options like cabs or rideshare apps can eat up the limited funds they have for food. Public transportation options are limited and difficult for people to rely on, particularly those who have disabilities, limited mobility or children.
“If you’ve ever bought your groceries and tried to take them on a bus, that is incredibly challenging,” said Rachel Sinley, associate professor of nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
It all adds up to a situation where some residents across the county live in “food deserts,” she said. Those are areas where there is no or limited access to healthful, nutritious, affordable food.
Food deserts consist of three big barriers: income, transportation and access.
It’s defined by government sources as an urban area where 33% of the people living in a census tract reside more than one mile from a supermarket or other food source. For rural areas, the defined distance is 10 miles.
“For a lot of suburban areas, a mile is still pretty far if you don’t have access to reliable public transportation or access to transportation,” Sinley said.
The definitions are limiting, though. An area with more supermarkets but less access to reliable transportation may be as much of a food desert as an area with fewer supermarkets but better transportation options, she said.
So, where are the grocery stores in the north metro?
Whatever terminology is used, food accessibility and affordability are an apparent issue across Adams County’s western suburbs.
For instance, people in the south parts of Westminster continually raise concern about the problem. The city’s lowest median household incomes of about $54,000 are in the 80030 and 80260 Zip codes..
The Westminster-based nonprofit, Growing Home, which helps feed people in need, found that 69% of respondents to a survey from those Zip codes in south Westminster said cost is the biggest barrier to accessing food. And, proximity was an underlying issue. More than 88% said smaller markets closer to home are too expensive.
“Deserts occur naturally, but the lack of food accessibility is not something that is a natural occurrence. This is based on the actions of human beings that make specific choices,” said Whitney Leeds, a manager for Growing Home.
The organization also has found that 59% of people walk, take the bus, catch a ride with a friend, or even use a motorized wheelchair to go shopping.
“None of these transit options are ideal,” the study said, especially considering that about a quarter of survey respondents said they have to travel 3 or more miles.
Some of those disproportionately affected are people of color. According to data from the State Demography Office, about 53% of residents in 80030 are people of color. That Zip code is mostly in Westminster but also includes part of Arvada. And, about 67% of residents in neighoring 80260 are people of color. That Zip spans between Westminster, Federal Heights, Northglenn and Thornton.
Meanwhile, in nearby 80023, which stretches into the northern parts of Westminster and Thornton, and a section of Broomfield, the median family income is $139,926. Residents there are 75% White and far less likely to live a mile or more from grocery stores.
“We can’t address the food desert issue if we don’t address some of the other inequities that are contributing to it,” Sinley said.
Defining grocery stores is a snap
As a child, Itzel Santana-Morfin’s dad was deported. Her mom was left to raise four children and the family eventually lost their home. Santana-Morfin remembers days when her mother didn’t eat so her children could.
The family struggled with various moves to multiple motels while facing homelessness and hunger. But her mom eventually bought a home and got the family back on their feet.
Now, Santana-Morfin runs a food bank at Legacy High School in Broomfield called Zeus’ Vault that also provides other basic necessities like soap and clothes. Having food banks at schools is a new initiative with Food for Hope to help families across the Adams 12 School District.
“‘What did we need when we were in this situation?’” Santana-Morfin said, referring to her own past. “I can give those things to you without you really having to ask me. You can tell it means a lot to people.”
Despite Legacy High School’s location in a wealthier area than other parts of the north metro area, there’s a growing need at the school.
Right now, she helps about four families per week with food, clothes and other resources. But the program is only about a year old and she thinks the number will grow.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that Legacy also serves two trailer parks that are pretty close to it,” she said. “They’re both down the street. And obviously those neighborhoods are filled with families that need more help.”
Nearby school food bank startups have grown fast. For instance, the Northglenn High School food bank, which began in 2020, serves up to 150 students a month, translating into as many as 600 family members.
A common theme Santana-Mofin has heard among students and families who need more help is the rising cost of living. Another is transportation to grocery stores. Some families lack a vehicle, either because they broke down and can’t afford to fix it or they simply don’t have one, which makes getting to the store a challenge.
But what makes a grocery store? The key is fresh and nutritious food. Can it be both a Safeway and a corner store?
Possibly. It depends what they offer, says Sinley at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
A way to measure that is SNAP benefits. SNAP is the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides funds each month for low-income households to purchase food.
To be allowed to accept SNAP, retailers need to offer a certain variety of food.
“There are some convenience stores that could qualify, but there’s some that certainly wouldn’t just based on the offerings that they have,” Sinley said .
Sinley, who used to work for a large grocery store chain, said executives meet in conference rooms and talk about surrounding neighborhoods. When they see low-income housing built, a concern about incomes comes into play, but also stereotyping of people who live in those types of housing. Crime is another factor. If crime is high, some retailers will limit hours or even close, making it harder for people to access food.
Congresswoman gets local on food issues
Congresswoman Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat who represents communities in Northern Colorado’s 8th District, hosted a roundtable in July to talk about food accessibility issues. She took issue with stereotypes about those in need, particularly when they come from her peers in Congress.
“That is precisely what we hear, ‘They don’t want to work. They just use the services all the time because they’re easy to access,’” Caraveo said.
Caraveo said some politicians perpetuate views that people in need only want to eat junk food, like Cheetos.
That isn’t fair, said Lonni Byrd, Double Up Food Bucks manager for Nourish Colorado. Byrd said people she want fresh food from places like farmer’s markets.
“That just speaks volumes to them really desiring to… having food that was grown with integrity and that’s local,” Byrd said.
Caraveo added that stereotypes play into the hands of her opponents who don’t want to see SNAP benefits expanded.
“When you have certain ideas in mind, it’s very easy to dismiss it as a program and really to cut funding from it,” Caraveo said.
Leeds, who serves as advocacy and community organizing manager for Growing Home, said the facts defy the stereotypes. About two-thirds of the people who turn to the food pantry have at least one person in their household working full time.
“Folks are working two, three, four jobs to make ends meet and they’re still not able to meet their food needs,” she said, citing skyrocketing inflation and housing costs in the metro area.
Rising need, diminished supply
Nonprofits that attended the roundtable reported a rise in the number of people needing help as the cost of living has escalated. At the same time, because agencies’ own costs have gone up, too, thanks to inflation, they aren’t fully able to meet the demand.
Growing Home has seen a 25% increase in need since the start of the pandemic in 2020, said Co-CEO Veronica Perez, and now works to meet the needs of about 1,000 people a month.
“The demand isn’t stopping,” Perez said.
The organization has to turn people away because its monthly spending on food rose from $8,000-$10,000 to $16,000.
Sarah Gregory is the public policy coordinator for Feeding Colorado, which represents five food banks and partners with 1,200 agencies. The end of SNAP emergency allotments in March left many people searching for new sources for food, and nonprofits scrambling.
SNAP recipients are, on average, getting $90 less per month, according to state officials. And, a family of four gets about $360 less a month.
“Any decrease in SNAP means that there’s more folks at our doors and other food pantry doors,” Gregory said, adding that food banks can’t meet all the need alone.
“We weren’t set up to purchase this amount,” Gregory said. “We weren’t set up to sustain that amount of purchasing for this long and so we truly need the help of Congress to make sure we’re fulfilling our mission.”
It also means changes to how people are living their lives. Anya Rose, public policy manager at Hunger Free Colorado, said after talking with 1,000s of families regarding the SNAP program, three main themes stand out.
One is that people are opting for cheaper food, which is often less nutritious.
The second and third themes are recipients choosing medications, utility bills and other life costs over food, Rose said.