Visit to the GrowHaus: An oasis in a food desert

On a chilly October morning in Colorado, me and my sister are driving to The Growhaus, a community-driven food hub located in the Elyria- Swansen neighbourhood of Denver.

We drive on the five-lane, characteristically American highway and take an exit near a pet food factory.

Okay, let me just pause here for a second. A pet food factory. A full functioning, all fairytale evil looking factory, exclusively designed for manufacturing pet food.

Maybe it is just me who is startled by this view.

See, in the project I am working for in Ethiopia we struggle in helping to create an industry from scratch for processing potatoes and onions.

But pet food factories? That must sound utopian for many Ethiopians. And it makes me wonder if this is the ultimate culmination point of rich societies. Requirement for joining the G8: must have pet food factories.

The irony of this particular pet food factory is also stark considering the neighbourhood we have just entered.

Elyria-Swansen is categorized as a food desert, a term coined in the 1990s, meaning an urban or rural area which does not have access to a grocery store or a market offering fresh fruit, vegetables, and other whole foods.

Food deserts are usually impoverished areas. In Elyria-Swansen, circa one fifth of all people live above the poverty line.

Picture an area with quickie marts and 7-11s that provide a seemingly abundant source of calories but in reality mostly a variety of processed, sugar and fat condensed foods.

These foods, combined with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, are the leading causes to obesity and cardiovascular disease, for instance.

I can’t help but to think that we’ve not only entered a food desert but also an area where pet food receives more attention than the nutrition of their owners.

The infamous pet food factory.
The infamous pet food factory.

The GrowHaus is trying to transfer Elyria-Swansen into something more healthy and vibrant.

Founded in 2009 by Coby Gould and Adam Brock and built in a former cut flower greenhouse complex, it describes itself as a “non-profit indoor farm, market place and educational center”.

We are told that the GrowHaus works through three different components: food production, food distribution and food education.

In practice this means that it is a place where residents from Elyria-Swansen can buy fresh and local fruits and vegetables all-year round.

Some of these vegetables, mostly bib lettuce, are produced in the Growhaus’ own hydroponics farming system. Most of the selection is, however, bought from local (in this case local meaning the whole state) farmers.

Communities are welcome to buy food on a daily basis or in pre-packed weekly boxes. For the residents of Elyria-Swansen prices are discounted.

But the GrowHaus is equally much a place for learning. It is a place where people can attend training courses on agriculture but also learn how to write a resumé or how to prepare for job interviews, the latter training a popular one among local youth of Elyria-Swansen.

In brief: there is a lot going on in the GrowHaus (I didn’t even go into detail about its beekeeping project. Or the aquaponics initiative that’s taking place under their roof), and judging by the sheer enthusiasm of our excellent guide and the buzz in the volunteers’ room, the place has established itself quite successfully on its 5th year around.

The philosophy underlying all its activities is to benefit the Elyria-Swansen community and to involve them in the planning process. So far, according to our guide, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

photo 1

The challenges of GrowHaus, however, remain similar to those of many other food hubs, food initiatives and alternative food movements.

These movements are rarely financially sustainable and often widely dependent on grants. This gives very little scope for sustainability or long-term planning.

Alternative food movements will notice the same thing farmers have noticed throughout ages: growing food will not make you rich. In fact, it will most likely not even cover all your production costs.

That being said, compared to how often the vision of these movements is to change the prevailing food system, relatively many of them lack a strategy on how to lobby the political elite and decision making bodies (or how to build a movement that would draw the attention of people of all ages and backgrounds). Many operate on a volunteer-basis, have high turnover and little continuity.

What gives the GrowHaus its very specific niche is its location and its interdisciplinary approach.

It is not just another urban farming initiative, but even more so one of social justice. It is not just about farming; it is equally much about tackling unemployment and health issues.

photo 3

As we drive away, I think about the people living in Elyria-Swansen.

Who are they? Do they consider themselves disadvantaged? What does it mean for them that they have been categorized as food desert inhabitants? Has it empowered them or done the exact opposite? Will they read this blog post of mine, and if they do, will they find it patronizing?

And why do food deserts exist? Because supermarkets do not see it as a profitable investment to start business in poor neighbourhoods? Or where they there in the first place but went out of business because no one bought their stuff? Which would then lead us to the stereotype conclusion that poor people do not appreciate healthy food. That is of course not the whole story, but I’ll have to write another blog post on that.



I highly recommend a visit to the GrowHaus if you ever find yourself in the mile high state. Free public tours every Friday and Saturday, starting at 10am.

Have you visited the GrowHaus or are you involved in any other food initiative?  Do you agree with the challenges mentioned in the post? Any other observations? Let me know in the comment section!

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