The GrowHaus Urban Farm Oasis

Bringing food back to Denver neighborhoods marked by the EPA as hazardous waste areas.

Denver Urban Farm GrowHaus In just two years, The GrowHaus, a 20,000-square-foot Denver greenhouse and education space, has become a veritable food oasis. Based in Elyria-Swansea, a neighborhood with Superfund designation and few healthy food options, The GrowHaus is providing fresh, local, affordable produce to the surrounding community. By also integrating numerous educational programs and workshops, plus innovative growing techniques like hydrofarming and aquaponics, The GrowHaus is well on its way to becoming a truly community-driven, neighborhood-based food system. The GrowHaus is run by a diverse and committed group of individuals, and responded to this interview as a staff.

What drew The GrowHaus staff to set up shop in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood?

There was an abandoned greenhouse in the area (our current site) that inspired us to ask, ‘what good things could we do with that space?’ From there, the answer was obvious. Elyria-Swansea is a food desert. It was built as an industrial hub, not a neighborhood and is therefore not well-suited to meet the needs of its residents. There is very little access to fresh produce and healthy food, and many families have to ride the bus in order to buy groceries. On top of that, the ground is very polluted and residents are afraid to have vegetable gardens in their own backyards. The neighborhood is in need of a healthy food resource and The GrowHaus was founded in an effort to meet that need.

What are the organization’s greatest challenges at the moment and how are you working to creatively overcome them?

There are many challenges, and re-invigorating the abandoned greenhouse has been a huge one. Re-use is never as easy as building new, but it’s something we believe in. It seems we are constantly undergoing construction and other projects here and there to design the space to suit our needs and enable us to do good work. We are just now finishing another round of construction to create new offices, a larger market, a temperature-controlled food prep area, a new climate battery, and better classroom space. The GrowHaus is constantly changing and improving. Another challenge is gaining trust from the community. We are constantly trying to get the word out about what we do and let the neighborhood residents know that we are a resource for them. Many people still don’t know what we do, and it can be a challenge to overcome the assumption that we grow things other than vegetables, if you know what I mean. However, we are starting to see some real improvement since the beginning of our MicroFarmer class, which has created lasting relationships with resident participants. We also have a couple staff members that we call ‘neighborhood promotoras’. Their job is to simply talk to the neighborhood members (one of them actually lives in the neighborhood herself) about The GrowHaus. This is a tight-knit community in which many families are without computers or Internet, so word of mouth is important. The promotoras not only share what we do, but they also get feedback from the community so we know which of our efforts are needed, which are working, and which aren’t. We don’t want to get caught in the trap of telling people what they need. Listening is very important.

What accomplishments does your staff feel particularly good about?

Our market has seen great success so far. We are providing families with better quality food (mostly organic and local) at more affordable prices than what is currently available. Our prices are on a sliding scale so that anyone can choose the right price to fit their income. Neighborhood residents automatically get the lowest price, which is just high enough to cover our cost, families are now able to purchase market goods through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We also recently celebrated the first graduates of our new MicroFarmer course. That program trains 20 individuals from the neighborhood in designing, marketing, and running their own agricultural business. They come to us with a range of interests from bee-keeping to egg production to aquaponics, and we give them the hands-on skills and the practical business knowledge that they need. By the end of the course they leave with a well-crafted business plan for their own agricultural business. We hope this program will be a catalyst to develop the neighborhood into an exciting and independent food economy that can, in time, become a resource for the rest of Denver.

In five years’ time, in what ways does The GrowHaus hope to have improved the Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods of Denver? How will life be different for the people who live there?

We envision an empowered community with improved access to healthy, affordable food within the neighborhood. We hope to expand our educational offerings so that anybody who wants to start a backyard garden, learn to cook, or become more physically active will have access to the tools and resources to do so. We’d also like to see the graduates of our MicroFarmer Program go on to create more small local food businesses that will strengthen our local economy, our food security and our community.

What advice does The GrowHaus have for those in other communities looking to formtheir own local food hubs?

Listening to and observing the community you’re trying to serve is a step that’s often overlooked. Every community has different needs. Feedback is invaluable.

What is the greatest barrier to healthier eating?

Convenience. When families are short on time and money it’s hard to put a home-cooked dinner on the table every night. Our goal is to make affordable, healthy food more convenient and accessible.

Due to the increased efficiency of your growing methods, how much food is The Growhaus able to produce each week?

Each week we harvest about 1000 heads of lettuce from our HydroFarm.

The Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is still known around Denver as being heavily polluted, despite cleanup efforts. Are traditional backyard gardens safe for residents?

We would never recommend gardening in this neighborhood without first getting the soil tested for heavy metals and other pollutants. A good solution is to use raised-beds. You can use clean soil brought in from other areas or you can build your own through composting or sheet- mulching (also called lasagna gardening). It is important to find solutions to the problem rather than just avoiding it. Soil remediation takes a very long time but it is important that we take steps in that direction and do so in a safe way.

Learn more

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photo credit: The GrowHaus