When Selena Ramirez was growing up, shopping for groceries was an hours-long ordeal that involved riding the city bus miles away with her mom and little brother and lugging home bags of food.
On days when that was too much, they bought instant noodles or Hot Pockets at the 7-Eleven on Federal Boulevard, the only “grocery store” within walking distance in Sun Valley, Denver’s poorest neighborhood. There was also a Family Dollar, but that was demolished years ago, with no neighborhood replacement.
“It’s just like a blank lot,” said Ramirez, 21. “It was a big blow to the community and we were all so upset.”
The west Denver neighborhood of Sun Valley, now a flurry of construction as 960 new subsidized housing units are in various stages of planning and completion, had been a food desert for years — until Tuesday.
On a dark and damp November morning, the cheery new Decatur Fresh Market — with a sparkling glass storefront and sunny yellow walls stenciled with drawings of fruit and vegetables — opened its doors to its first customers. Ramirez was behind the coffee bar making lattes and selling hot, foil-wrapped breakfast burritos.
The space on Decatur Street is part grocery store, part food pantry, where kids who might otherwise snack on gas station chips can pick up free, healthy snacks and where donated meals made by a community nonprofit fill the freezer.
The store, funded by the Denver Housing Authority and operated by a nonprofit, has prices lower than Walmart and shelves stocked with fresh produce, hot sauces, spices and oils selected for a culturally diverse neighborhood. About 30 different languages are spoken in Sun Valley, home to about 2,000 people.
There are fresh tortillas and samosa wrappers, bottles of Vietnamese juices and Mexican Tajin, the chili-and-lime spice mix sprinkled on fruit. The 1,800-square-foot store has a small spice section, with ground paprika and cumin, an important ingredient for various Mexican and African dishes prepared in many Sun Valley homes.
Zahara Amed, who is from Somalia and has lived in Sun Valley for 19 years, took pictures of the groceries in her kitchen and sent them to the manager of Decatur Fresh before opening day. She wants the store to add basmati rice and a specific type of skinny spaghetti that she uses to make an African soup full of potatoes, vegetables and beef.
If the little store doesn’t stock those staples and others, many in the neighborhood will have to continue to travel all the way to Aurora to a Somali grocery store, she said. The mother of seven children with three still living at home switched jobs to work at the new grocery store. For years, she has worked at hotels, as a housekeeper and in the lobby, she said. “I’m so happy,” she said, for the new job close to home and that the neighborhood has a real grocery store.
Amed and co-worker Marian Sherif, who grew up in a nearby housing authority apartment building after her parents immigrated from Somalia, might later get to sell some of their soups or samosas at Decatur Fresh. The grocery store will have a hot-food bar showcasing local residents’ recipes, which they will cook at another Denver Housing Authority enterprise, the Osage Cafe in Denver’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Both the cafe and the grocery store are operated by the nonprofit Youth Employment Academy, a workforce training program for young people in marginalized communities. Workers are trained in culinary arts, customer service and creative skills. Employees at the new grocery store are part of a paid training program aimed at helping them build careers in customer service or grocery store management.
Before the opening of Decatur Fresh Market, the nearest grocery store to Sun Valley was a King Soopers about 2.5 miles away.
The grocery store is on the first floor of a 92-unit affordable housing complex, and just down the street from a 95-unit project. In all, the Denver Housing Authority is building 960 new apartments, in four phases. In addition, the authority is working with developers to create 600 to 800 units on about 10 acres of land in Sun Valley, said Annie Hancock, interim director of community connections at the Denver Housing Authority.
The city contributed $917,000 to open the grocery store, and the nonprofit operator, Youth Empowerment Academy, intends to keep prices lower than other stores in the city.
The grocery store follows the housing authority’s urban farming project, a collaboration with the Denver Botanic Gardens. About a quarter mile from the market, along the South Platte River, gardners produce about 4,000 pounds of squash, greens, peppers, tomatoes, cabbages and radishes each year. Since the first growing season in 2019, Sun Valley residents have purchased the produce in the summer and fall in a pay-as-you-can farmers market.
Next season, the produce will end up on the shelves of Decatur Fresh Market.
Still-empty refrigerator cases soon will have healthy, free snacks for kids to pick up on Saturdays and Sundays, when they are not in school. Those 18 and under will get to choose a fruit, protein and grain, funded through Healthy Food for Denver’s Kids, which Denver voters created through a 2018 ballot measure. Chefs at the Osage Cafe are planning to make to-go meat-and-cheese plates and chicken kabobs.
In the frozen section, stacks of burritos and other take-and-go meals are free — products made by Work Options, a job-training program that teaches culinary skills to people who are unemployed, including those who recently left the criminal justice system.
And in the near future, as hundreds of new residents are expected to move into Sun Valley’s new affordable housing complexes, the grocery store plans to hold a $10 special — a laundry basket filled with six items that residents can select from the home goods area, a few small shelves holding mops and toilet paper.
Rick Stollsteimer, who for 20 years worked at Albertsons and is a butcher by trade, is hoping that someday, Decatur Fresh will add a meat counter. Stollsteimer started as a maintenance worker for the Denver Housing Authority a few years ago and jumped at the chance to become the store manager for the new Sun Valley market.
He was beaming after his first morning behind the front counter greeting customers. “They are very happy with the location of the store,” he said. “They love the layout of the items and what we’re carrying. The cleanliness and the beauty of it. Just the convenience of it all.”