Southeast steps up to fight food insecurity during COVID-19

Elena Salinas launched her pop-up grocery store this year to address food access issues in Southeast Colorado Springs.

Every Wednesday morning at 5 a.m., Southeast Colorado Springs resident and entrepreneur Elena Salinas rolls out of bed and prepares for a long day ahead.

Wednesdays are the busiest day of the week for Salinas and her mobile business, The Helping Hand Neighborhood Grocery Store. The mother of two begins the day by waking up her 3-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, loading them into her 2006 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, and heading west to meet with a farmer who supplies The Helping Hand with its eggs.

At 10 a.m., Salinas meets with her bread supplier. Around noon, she meets with another farmer to secure her weekly allotment of microgreens. And when 3 p.m. rolls around, it’ll be time to start setting up for the evening’s pop-up grocery stand, which will go until either all the food runs out or the sun sets, whichever comes first.

But even if Salinas sells everything on her stand, there’s typically little to show for all of her hard work.

Her mission is to provide fresh, healthy foods in places like the Pikes Peak Park, Knob Hill, Meadows Park and Hillside neighborhoods, where there’s sparse food access, especially for low-income residents who either can’t afford fresh produce or don’t have the transportation to get to the places that sell them.

Helping these people means offering her food at an affordable price, so Salinas must sacrifice not only her time and energy, but also the potential profits she could be making, should she raise prices.

“I didn’t get into this because I thought I was going to make a whole bunch of money,” she said. “I did it because I love feeding people and I just think that food is love.”

Since moving to the Deerfield Hills neighborhood from Denver about four years ago, Salinas has seen firsthand the area’s lack of access to fresh, affordable foods.

“I was living this life where I thought it was normal to put things back at the grocery store and I thought it was normal to have only one grocery store to go to,” Salinas said. “But getting involved with other people and my neighbors, I realized we’re all going through the same thing, here. We all want better options, we all want to be able to pay for these types of food. We’re all wanting more.”

So to try to make a difference in her community, she founded her own grocery store earlier this year. It has continuously grown ever since.

“It’s all coming together,” Salinas said.

“There’s just so much emotion behind this store, and I have so much I want to do with it. It’s just in the beginning stages, but I’m up every single day and night, just reaching out to people to try to build it.”

Community concern

Salinas is one of many Southeast residents who is trying to address a dire problem in the community.

A lack of access to healthy foods, according to Colorado Springs Food Rescue (CSFR) Director of Food Education Patience Kabwasa, can have extreme consequences for those who go without. It literally can take years off of a person’s life.

“In 2018, [El Paso County Public Health] published a report showing that in some areas of town, there was a 16.1-year life expectancy difference between neighborhoods,” Kabwasa said.“The neighborhoods that saw the most disparity … were in Southeast Colorado Springs. And food insecurity absolutely plays a part in that.”

She explained the factors that play into food insecurity are complex and intersectional, and include a lack of income, a lack of access to transportation, differing levels of education and a lack of affordable housing.

In the Hillside neighborhood, for example, Kabwasa said a 7-Eleven convenience store is the closest thing to a grocer within three miles.

“So think about what you are able to access, as far as fresh food at the counter at 7-Eleven,” Kabwasa said. “And if you’re walking or riding the bus, your food decisions are probably going to be impacted by your commute and what it looks like for you to be able to get those groceries home, particularly if you have no car. And that is on top of having limited income to buy food in the first place. 

“So those challenges absolutely contribute to food insecurity and contribute to life expectancy.”

CSFR has been doing its part to address food insecurity since the nonprofit was founded in 2013, and helps Southeast Springs residents through initiatives like its weekly no-cost grocery program. 

The organization is also working on an innovative new center that will be located in the heart of the Hillside neighborhood, called the Hillside Hub Neighborhood Food Center.

“[The Hillside Hub] is a place where neighbors will be able to grow, cook, access and learn about fresh food,” Kabwasa said. “It just really gives people a thoroughfare for everything fresh food.”

The project was originally scheduled to break ground in May, but because of the pandemic, has been pushed back. Kabwasa said they’re still hoping to begin construction by the end of the year.

Pandemic problem

And that’s not the only way COVID-19 has created challenges for CSFR and other organizations that fight food insecurity in Southeast.

“A lot of things shifted or shut down overnight,” Kabwasa said. “We literally had five out of the eight grocery programs that we operate — because they were in a community center or school — close down overnight. So we had to work really quickly to create a mutual-aid hunger response team and operate all of our food access, no-cost grocery programs out of our administrative offices. Which is what we’ve been doing since mid-March.”

The pandemic is impacting not only how CSFR is operating their programs, but also who is showing up to receive food.

“We’ve seen people in the lines who don’t normally come to the grocery program,” Kabwasa said. “I think that speaks to people losing their jobs. They’ve been challenged even more with income and are trying to figure out what they’re going to do to access food. So the pandemic has definitely effected who we’re seeing and increased the need.”

Another player seeking to make an impact on food access in Southeast is the Deerfield Hills Community Center, which runs a community garden program and distributes some of the food grown there in its bi-weekly and monthly food programs.

Jody Derington, the facility director of the center, said its garden gives local residents an opportunity to grow their own fresh foods, to help provide for their families and be less beholden to grocery providers.

Participation in the garden varies from year to year, Derington said, and this year’s class of gardeners seems to have been impacted by the pandemic, both positively and negatively.

“There’s definitely some nervousness people feel with regards to making sure they are able to social distance and things like that. So I think people were a little reluctant,” Derington said. “But on the flip I think, more than ever, people are concerned about what all is going on with their food.

“When we had the scarcity of meat and we had certain items that were kind of disappearing, there were discussions I overheard in regards to being able to provide for themselves and provide as much as they can. And also to know that it’s available for their family.”

Deerfield Hills operates two food programs — one monthly and one bi-weekly — that have undergone significant changes as a result of the pandemic.

Its monthly Mobile Food Pantry with Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado, which provides food for 150 families, has transitioned to a drive-thru service. 

And the center’s initiative with CSFR, which usually serves between 30 and 40 families once per week, has transitioned to an every-other-week affair. Its participation dropped to about 20 families, Derington said, not as a result of a decreased community need, but due to additional resources becoming available, such as school districts providing meals.

And while individuals, businesses and organizations have stepped up to help meet the community’s need during the unprecedented crisis, Kabwasa said truly getting a handle on food insecurity in Southeast Colorado Springs will require much more hard work from many more people. 

“When you’re talking about food insecurity … really at the root, what you’re really talking about is the effect of poverty,” Kabwasa said. “Food insecurity is a symptom of disparity in economic opportunity, in housing, in income and transportation. So it’s going to take a lot of things.

“It’s going to take increased economic drivers and opportunities in the area. It’s going to take access to fresh food. It’s going to take the purchasing power to purchase fresh food and get that food to your home in a reasonable amount of time so you can put it on the table for your family. 

“And it’s going to take a lot of the partners in the area working on different areas or intersections of the disparate conditions and mobilizing the people. People mobilizing in the area is really what’s going to work in bettering the conditions."

Reporter

Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.