AURORA, Colo — After nearly a year of searching for a new location, Food Connect Colorado is once again open to patrons. A food pantry in Aurora, Food Connect operates as a free grocery store to help create a sense of normalcy and independence for the people it serves.
Denver7 last spoke with the organization’s president, Elizabeth Watts, in December 2022. At that time, she had all of Food Connect’s equipment in storage as she searched for a space to operate. She closed their former location after a dramatic increase in rent costs.
“It was much harder to find a new space than I thought,” Watts said. “I thought we would just be closed a few months, you know, and it turned out to be almost a year. The commercial realtors I would call that had a suitable space—once they found out what my business was, they would pretty much just turn me down. They would say, ‘Oh no, we don’t want a business like that in our shopping center or warehouse complex.’ Because, I think most of them think that food pantries are patronized by homeless people. And it’s not true.
“People who come here have homes. A lot of them own their homes. And they’re mostly working. They’re not unemployed. It’s just people that are having a hard time and need that extra something to pay the bills every month.”
About a month ago, Watts finally found a long-term solution. After posting about her situation on the NextDoor app, she was connected with the Crosswind Hope and Restoration Center church and nonprofit in Aurora. They have welcomed her operation into one of their large backrooms.
“It’s so wonderful to be in this big, beautiful space. It’s probably a third larger than our old space,” Watts said. “And it’s air conditioned and heated, which is nice.”
At Food Connect Colorado, guests are not called “recipients” or “needy” by Watts or her volunteers. They are called shoppers. The shoppers who strolled through for opening day Thursday were just as relieved—or more—to have the market operating once again.
“With rising prices and everything, you go into the grocery store and you think, ‘Okay, well, that’s tripled in price. That’s doubled in price,'" shopper Barbara VanMeer said. “It’s been a long year without this place, and I’m so glad they finally found a location. I’m thrilled to be back.”
Local food banks have reported rising need for their services in recent years. According to Feeding America, one in 12 people in Colorado are facing hunger, including 1 in 9 children. Data compiled by Food Connect Colorado showed that nearly half of those utilizing its services rented a home, and more than a third owned a home. More than 68% lived in a household with four or more people.
“I started using it because I’m taking care of two of my grandchildren, and it’s just me and my husband alone,” shopper Bernadette Johnson explained. “It’s helped us quite a bit because I’m on disability, so my husband is the sole provider. And this helps us a lot.”
Watts is hopeful that this new arrangement, with its added space and utilities, will enable her and her volunteers to serve even more people going forward.
“They appreciate it so much,” she said. “And, I’m just filling a need that I know is out there.”