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Yaneth Romo and her son Eduardo Lima, 4, right, shop together for food and other necessities at the Clayton Cares Market. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Just about every week, Trenna Richardson’s family gathers for what she calls “soul food Sunday,” a full spread that often consists of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, greens, corn and cornbread.

“We just go all-out on Sundays,” said Richardson, who teaches toddlers at Clayton Early Learning in northeast Denver.

But feeding a household of nine people comes with a hefty cost, one that Richardson used to skirt by turning to local food banks. For the past few months, however, she’s relied on her school to help stock her pantry. Every Thursday afternoon, Richardson wheels a cart around a market that Clayton Early Learning opened at its main Denver campus in October, browsing shelves and bins of food and supplies alongside other staff members and families of her students. Since the preschool added the Clayton Cares Market, it has distributed 13,856 pounds of food to families for free – everything from salmon and turkey to frozen pumpkin pies, milk, potatoes, peppers, onions, tomatoes and other fresh vegetables and fruit.

And it has restored a sense of dignity for families and staff needing a little extra help amid the pandemic, letting them choose the meal items they bring home, at a time 1 in 9 Colorado children face food insecurity, according to statistics from Feeding America, a nonprofit of food banks and pantries across the country.

“It also provides stress relief to families who are making tradeoffs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods,” said Sarah Berkman, vice president of development at Clayton Early Learning and one of the lead organizers of the market.

Food insecurity has worsened across the state during the pandemic as families have struggled financially, said Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy for Hunger Free Colorado, a nonprofit that connects people in need to food resources.

“The pandemic has caused a lot of folks to lose income and lose support through jobs, and so they’ve had to figure out how to pay their bills,” Wheeland said. “And one of the things that they can cut back on is food, and that creates food insecurity for way too many families.”

Surveys by Hunger Free Colorado found that the number of respondents who reported facing food insecurity roughly tripled during the pandemic, to 33%.

Parents with young children at home were among those most impacted by hunger, with more than 40% reporting they experienced food insecurity. Breadwinners in those families often work entry-level jobs and jobs in the service industry – positions cut during the pandemic, Wheeland said. People of color also tend to face higher rates of food insecurity than white people, she added.

Schools have become an essential part of helping families make sure their children are fed by hosting food giveaways and offering free meals to any student through funding from the federal government.

“Food is as important as books for children to learn,” Wheeland said.

Clayton’s market evolved out of a food giveaway program the preschool ran at two locations, including from its main campus’ parking lot, as COVID-19 shuttered classrooms and strapped families, many of whom were already struggling to cover their expenses and who suffered job losses. The school, whose main campus sits on 20 acres along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, primarily educates children from low-income families.

Trenna Richardson, left, a teacher at Clayton Early Learning, volunteers helping families like Yaneth Romo and her son Eduardo Lima, 4, right, shop for food and other necessities at the Clayton Cares Market on the school’s campus. Richardson also picks up a lot of groceries at the market for her own family. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

About a month into the pandemic, Clayton Early Learning launched weekly food giveaways in collaboration with Mile High Early Learning and organizations fighting food insecurity, including Food Bank of the Rockies, Denver Food Rescue and the Denver Metro Emergency Food Network. With about 30 volunteers helping run a drive-through distribution point at its home campus, the preschool served on average 150 families and more than 300 children every week for four months, loading trunks with meals, snacks, nonperishables, diapers and other supplies.

The donation effort, however, strained staff, who scaled back and redesigned their approach to feeding families. In November 2020, Clayton Early Learning began doling out totes of food every two weeks to between 75 and 125 families, with assistance from Food Bank of the Rockies, and continued those giveaways into last August.

Berkman recalls handing out totes weighed down by canned nonperishables and largely devoid of fresh food. She distinctly remembers packing totes with one can of green beans or beans intended to provide nutrition for a family of four.

Berkman knew there had to be a better way.

In the fall, the preschool set out to convert one of its brick buildings that was previously leased to other nonprofits into a market anchored by the idea of giving families choice, or providing resources in what Berkman called “a more culturally and ethnically appropriate way.” That means making sure families can pick up the kinds of foods they’re used to cooking with. 

Now, as families walk into the Clayton Cares Market, they can grab a shopping cart — while their child can follow along with their own miniature green and white shopping cart — and stroll aisles between tall metal racks of food, hygiene products and cleaning supplies. Freezers and refrigerators containing meat, fish, vegetables and frozen desserts stand in one corner of the market. Another corner serves as a small library, where students can pick out books and sit down at a pint-sized wooden table or on a brightly colored rug spelling out the alphabet to flip through pages. 

The market is rounded out by shelves of children’s clothing and diapers in another corner and a check-out station in the last corner, near a row of tables where decorated wooden bins hold fresh carrots, onions, potatoes, peppers and other fresh produce. As families wrap up their visit, volunteers weigh their food and ask them for feedback on what else they’d like to see stocked.

Ana Rodriguez, 4, uses her own tiny shopping cart to help her mom Adriana Ibarra and sister Alexandra Rodriguez, 1, find food and other necessities at the Clayton Cares Market. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Recently, the market added staples like flour, sugar, salt and pepper – “things that we take for granted that we cook with every single day,” Berkman said.

That’s especially important for Clayton Early Learning’s neighborhood, located in a food desert. Fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Church’s Chicken are within walking distance of the school.

While the market is currently open to students’ families and staff members, Berkman hopes to expand the market’s footprint to serve the broader community. Currently, the market is being supported through private funds and food is sourced through Amazon, Shamrock Foods, Safeway and the Denver nonprofit We Don’t Waste, Berkman said.

Cammy Hagedorn, a single mother of four children who lives in Denver, estimates that she saves at least $200 a month by visiting the Clayton Cares Market, where she stocks up on food and other expensive essentials like diapers.

“It’s helped me to cut back on the cost of especially diapers and being able to have snacks throughout the week for them,” said Hagedorn, 39, who sends three of her kids to Clayton Early Learning.

Health and wellness manager Jennifer Pham, right, and project manager Joan Deming, place fresh fruits and vegetables out on shelves before shoppers arrive at the Clayton Cares Market on the Clayton Early Learning campus in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

During her weekly trips to the market, she’s been able to find everything she needs and has been grateful for the ability to select what she brings home so that she can feed her kids the meals they like and cut back on food waste.

“Who knows our kids better than we do?” Hagedorn said.

The market has become something of an oasis for parents like Hagedorn – where they’re guaranteed to find nutritious food.

Families across the board want “fresh, high-quality produce,” said Kristen Wilford-Adams, interim health and wellness director at Clayton Early Learning.

“We look at our nutrition and health service program as a foundational piece to success in life, not just school but in life,” Wilford-Adams said. “These kids are growing and developing every single minute of every single day and it’s so important to give them the most nutritious food to support with healthy growth and development.”

Prynce Collier, 4, helps his mom Vanessa Ramos carry a basket filled with fresh vegetables as the two head to check out at the Clayton Cares Market. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Access to nutrition is crucial for Clayton students, Wilford-Adams said. Students receive an estimated 80% of their weekly caloric intake from meals and snacks offered at school, according to meal attendance numbers and surveys collected by the preschool.

“Oftentimes it’s considered a privilege to eat healthy, and we’re trying to change the narrative of that,” she added.

Thanks to the Clayton Cares Market, Richardson can make sure her grandchildren, who she said have “a never-ending stomach,” eat well-rounded meals, both on “soul food Sunday” and throughout the rest of the week. She tries to prepare them “hearty meals where all of the components are available.” 

That’s become more manageable for her with the 10-15 pounds of food she carts home from the market some weeks – everything from milk, eggs, bread and fresh vegetables to chicken breasts and fish, which can be hard to find and tough to afford at grocery stores.

“It’s helped us tremendously,” Richardson said, adding, “it helps me to get some of the staples like in-between pay periods.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 8:12 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022 to correct the spelling of Cammy Hagedorn’s name.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...