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Nonprofit dreams big in push to end Montbello's status as food desert

M.O.C. buys land for store & much more
Posted at 11:55 AM, Feb 29, 2020

DENVER -- More than 30-thousand people live in Denver's Montbello neighborhood.

Despite its status as Denver's most populous, the sprawling neighborhood in northeast Denver is considered a food desert.

Its lone supermarket, a Walmart Neighborhood Market, sits on the far east edge at 5141 Chambers.

"We've been working to draw grocery stores into our community, and after about two and a half years of trying, it dawned on us, they're not coming," said Angelle Fouther, Vice President of the Montbello Organizing Committee, a nonprofit started by neighborhood residents who were tired of being ignored.

The MOC plans to change that.

The spunky little nonprofit began five years ago with $5,000 and a dream.

"A really big dream and a community that dreamed with us," said Board Member Khadija Haynes. "But we couldn't attract funds because we didn't own land. Everybody said, 'as soon as you get that land, call us.'"

Now, they have the land. MOC just purchased a vacant RTD Park and Ride lot at Albrook Drive and Peoria, for $600,000.

The dream has grown from a two-story building to a grocery anchored cultural hub with meeting space, community retail and places for artists and performers, called The Hub.

But that's not all.

The community project will also include 96 affordable housing units -- studio, one, two and three bedroom apartments -- which will help prevent displacement.

"Gentrification is a dirty word," said MOC Executive Director Donna Garnett. "That's why it was so important for this community to own this property."

Garnett added, "Developers swoop in to communities all over the metro area and they build what they want to build. Well we want to build what we want to build, and we want to allow people to stay in their community."

Haynes told Denver7 that MOC's dream is part of the FreshLo Initiative sponsored by a major grant from the Kresge Foundation.

The foundation is investing to develop pioneering food-oriented initiatives in low-income communities.

FreshLo stand for "fresh, local and equitable."

Haynes said they're using food as a creative platform for neighborhood revitalization, and that FreshLo is the first national program to intentionally integrate food, art and community development to drive neighborhood revitalization on a large scale.

Garnett said that while Montbello is currently a food desert, (for lack of grocery stores,) it is also a food swamp, because of an over-concentration of fast food restaurants.

"We have a high rate of obesity," she said. "All those kind of health disparities related to poor food."

Fouther said the nonprofit is partnering with Khalid Morris of Family Tree Food Market, a minority owned full-service store that will provide nutrition workshops and cooking classes.

"The goal is not just to make money off the community, but to help the community in it's health goals," she said.

One of MOC's other goals is to link the community's neighborhood gardens with a walkable trail.

When asked how soon the Hub will be done, Garnett replied, "It's a pretty aggressive time frame."

She said they've also garnered support from the Colorado Health Foundation and the Denver Foundation to get things started.

She said they're not done engaging with the community yet, and that within the next nine weeks they will talk to 2,000 people, asking them what the store should look like, what will be in it, and what should be in their 'green roof.'"

She said the goal is to break ground in January of 2021 and that "if everything goes according to plan," people would start moving in by the 2nd or 3rd quarter of 2022.