The nearest store where residents of Colorado Springs’ Hillside neighborhood can buy groceries is a 7-Eleven, where food is expensive, selection is limited, and junk food outnumbers healthier options.
“The neighborhood is surrounded by convenience stores and gas stations as stable food options, which makes no sense and is not good for the residents,” said 13-year Hillside resident Victoria Stone.
The next closest is a Save-A-Lot, which is about 3 miles away on South Circle Drive.
“If you’re walking or taking public transit, that makes it challenging to get to,” said Patience Kabwasa, director of programs for Colorado Springs Food Rescue.
Hillside, in the city’s southeast quadrant, is considered a “food desert,” an urban area in which it is difficult to find affordable or good-quality fresh food.
In fact, a grocery store in the neighborhood was at the top of residents’ wish list in a survey the nonprofit organization recently conducted, Kabwasa said.
That will soon change, under an expansion Colorado Springs Food Rescue announced Friday night at its fourth annual Harvest Celebration.
A new program, Hillside Hub, will provide residents with fresh vegetables grown in the neighborhood along with cooking classes and other educational seminars on nutrition and healthy eating habits.
The organization plans to build a community food center on 3.47 acres of land at 1090 S. Institute St., south of the city-owned Hillside Community Center.
The food center will be a venue for residents to grow, cook, access, learn about and advocate for fresh food, said Zac Chapman, executive director of Colorado Springs Food Rescue.
“It’s impossible to have a conversation about hunger or food insecurity without talking about how it’s produced, who has access, how it’s wasted or reclaimed,” Chapman said.
The first structure to be built will be a four-season greenhouse producing year-round vegetables that will be distributed to the neighborhood and other no-cost grocery programs Colorado Springs Food Rescue operates.
A building to house an education center and administrative offices, along with an outdoor learning garden, will later be constructed on the site, Chapman said.
Youths from an existing employment and mentorship program Colorado Springs Food Rescue runs in partnership with Atlas Preparatory School, a middle and high charter school in Harrison School District 2, will work with the new program.
The Legacy Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports education and community development in Colorado Springs, last week donated the land for the new project, said CEO Zach McComsey.
“We think having a neighborhood-based food hub is something many people have asked for and will really enjoy,” he said.
The land, which overlooks the city’s southern vista, is worth about $350,000, McComsey said.
“The views are extraordinary,” he said. “It should be an incredible location for the food hub.”
The Legacy Institute helped Colorado Springs Food Rescue obtain office space at the new Hunt Community Campus in Hillside last December, along with other nonprofits that are in the defunct elementary school building.
Since then, “They have done a terrific job partnering with the neighborhood to expand their programming in Hillside,” McComsey said, “and their success this year was the reason we decided to donate the land to them.”
Other project contributors include The Dakota Foundation, the Joseph Henry Edmondson Foundation, the John and Margot Lane Foundation and the Katherine and Dusty Loo Foundation.
Colorado College students started Colorado Springs Food Rescue five years ago, by transporting leftover food from the campus cafeteria to the city’s homeless kitchens and others in need.
They “rescued” 1,400 pounds of food that year.
Since then, the nonprofit organization has become a large-scale food distribution and education system, working with 60 partners citywide to each month rescue 30,000 pounds of unused produce, meats and dairy products primarily from grocery stores, farmers’ markets and backyard gardens. The food is then given away for free at 10 sites in low-income neighborhoods.
Under the model, residents living in the areas volunteer to manage and assist with the programs, Chapman said, which gives ownership and pride.
“So it’s not just me going into the neighborhoods and handing out food,” he said. “Residents have a part in making it happen.”
Last year, more than $1 million worth of food was disbursed to 15,000 people, he said.
The organization also recently launched its first social enterprise, a residential compost collection service called Soil Cycle.
The pilot program is underway in the Shooks Run neighborhood, where residents can signup for weekly food waste pickups.
The organization has gained supporters, Chapman believes, because programs are “predicated on relationship and relationship-building.”
As will be the Hillside Hub.
Stone said after living in the neighborhood for more than a decade, she’s really excited about the project.
“I see the potential and the vision of the project,” she said. “While it is starting with a grow house, that does not mean that there is not the potential for walkable community jobs or walkable healthy sustainable food.
“Colorado Springs Food Rescue has made a real commitment to the neighborhood by reaching out to new residents and long-standing residents to see what the community wants and is committed to food justice and solidarity.”
The land where the Hillside Hub will be previously belonged to Relevant Word Ministries, an adjacent church.
The pastor, the Rev. Promise Lee, said if the project is done right — not “to” or “for” the residents but “with” the residents — it should work.
“I have no reason to believe it won’t be done right,” he said. “Everything begins in seed form.”
Lee is a longtime activist for Hillside, an ethnically and economically diverse area southeast of downtown Colorado Springs.
He formed the Hillside Neighborhood Association in 1987 to rally residents to reclaim their community.
When his ministry purchased the property 13 years ago, and before building the church, members created a community garden in the exact location as the proposed food center.
“We tilled the ground, cultivated it and offered plots to the community free of charge,” Lee said.
People transported water by the buckets to their rows for three years, until the idea ran out of steam.
In the way the church’s community garden “galvanized residents, cultivating them into neighbors,” Lee said he hopes the new food center will foster tight community bonds.
“We are witnessing this energetic generation of community-minded thinkers taking the decade-old seeds of thoughts and ideas, and catapulting them to another level,” Lee said.
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