“When you’re going through all of that, you don’t really notice. You just think ‘This is what we have to do to get by.’”
Those words from Patience Kabwasa, Food to Power executive director, resonate with many in the Southeast.
Nearly 10,000 residents have experienced food insecurity — not having adequate access to enough nutritious foods.
Kabwasa, and other individuals and organizations have been working to curb food insecurity.
The roots of the issue are deeper than just caloric intake. Food insecurity stems from other issues including transportation, housing, finances and of course, health.
According to Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, “Food insecurity is associated with poorer health and higher healthcare costs.”
A study, published July 2019 on Feeding America’s website, shows, “Among food-insecure households, reduced access to nutritious foods increases the risk for poor health and chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.”
Food insecurity can worsen mental health by increasing stress, which eventually leads to more overall health care costs.
Americans spent nearly $53 billion on health care due to the pressures of food insecurity according to the study. In the Southeast, this means residents paid almost $1,250,000 in food-insecurity related healthcare costs.
“In this community, the grocery store is 7-Eleven and you think about the food they put on the counter,” Kabwasa said. “You connect that to diet-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease.”
As the issue continues to affect the Southeast, community members work to thwart the problem from becoming devastating beyond repair.
Short-term: Food pantries
According to FoodPantries.org, Colorado has nearly 240 food pantries. Of those, nearly 20 percent (40) are in Colorado Springs.
Pikes Peak United Way, a nonprofit that focuses on “youth success,” financial stability and health, operates a mobile food pantry at Sierra High School on the first and third Thursday of each month. They’re expected to provide additional days in the coming months due to summer vacation.
The mobile food pantry provides options such as grapefruit juice, beans, peas, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, fish, frozen carrots, potatoes, apples and more.
The food comes from the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which is a federal program that, “Helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans by providing them with emergency food assistance at no cost,” per TFAP’s website.
Pikes Peak United Way’s mobile pantry began in 2019 at Mitchell High School to help families at the school.
However, when the pandemic started in 2020, Elizabeth Quevedo, PPUW director of community impact, said PPUW began to spread out to serve more families.
“Our pre-pandemic numbers were around 200 families, and we did a walk-up style in those days where people could come up and shop for themselves,” Quevedo said. “Once the pandemic hit, we quickly switched to a drive-thru style to keep everyone safe and to be able to keep offering the service. Our numbers grew that first week after March 13. We had 600 families.
“It stayed like that for months but we’ve seen a gradual decrease. We are now serving around 200 families, so we’re back to you know pre-pandemic numbers, but the need is still there.”
The mobile food pantry also provides goods to Stratmoor Hills, Otero, Centennial and Bricker Elementary schools, and Palmer High School.
Though the services is necessary, Quevedo hopes one day that it won’t be required.
“The goal for human services is to put ourselves out of business,” Quevedo said with a smile. “We want people to gain stability and self-sufficiency. That’s our hope.”
Improving food access
Although food pantries and mobile food pantries supplement a resident’s grocery haul, the Southeast still requires a more permanent solution.
Enter entities such as A Fresh Move Grocery Store and Hillside Hub, which seek to rectify the area’s shortage of fresh-produce grocery stores.
Elena Salinas, owner of A Fresh Move, created the business during the pandemic to provide accessible fresh food options in the Southeast.
Salinas began the business in March 2020 following two years of surveying the area.
Now, she offers food for several residents in the Hillside, Pikes Peak Park and Knob Hill areas.
“I’ve learned so much about fresher foods, safe soil practices, farm operations, fresh food access, advocating for community, business and even my own self,” Salinas wrote in an Instagram post. “Food speaks when words are inadequate and like my mother says, ‘food touches the heart before it reaches the stomach.’”
Soon, A Fresh Start will be one of two new sources for fresh food for Southeast locals.
On June 12, 2021, Food to Power, previously Colorado Springs Food Rescue, broke ground on Hillside Hub.
The area will be a 3,400 square-foot food center and will open June 11.
Kabwasa said Hillside Hub, located near Hillside Community Center and Relevant Word Ministries, will help improve locals’ lives by providing, “Access, education and skill sharing and production.”
“There is research out there that says if a child pulls something out of the ground, it increases their chances of eating that vegetable in the long run because they have that experience of engaging with the land and soil and being able to grow and harvest something,” Kabwasa said. “Unfortunately, because of our always-on-the-move society, we’ve lost being able to connect with the land and earth that way. A lot of children think you just get food at the grocery store. They don’t make that connection. This space will help people engage in all aspects of the food system.”
For Kabwasa, having an area facility to provide fresh food is essential.
El Paso County, “Has a notably low rate of grocery stores and supermarkets per capita compared to the rest of the state (which is already low compared to the rest of the country.),” per a 2018 food assessment by El Paso County Public Health,
In the Southeast, there is a Shamrock Foodservice Warehouse located near the Citadel Mall and Mitchell High School; a King Soopers near Sierra High School; a Save-a-Lot on South Circle, and a King Soopers near South Academy.
Multiple options for residents to select from, but not always conveniently located for residents, especially those without a vehicle.
“Why is it that in this [Southeast] community, there is no grocery store or the only ‘grocery store’ is 7-Eleven,” Kabwasa said. “You look at Fillmore and that’s what we’d refer to as a food swamp because every fast-food restaurant known to man is on that one-mile block, but where is the nearest grocery store?
“You throw in other factors like limited transportation, limited income and housing insecurity, food is usually the last thing you prioritize. Not because you don’t want to [purchase food], but all those things are at play and health gets moved to the back burner.”
Housing and transportation remain a larger issue that could play a role in decreasing food insecurity numbers locally and across the state.
The city is working to find affordable solutions to both facets of life in the Springs.
Colorado Springs recently earned the No. 2 spot on the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of “Best Places to Live.”
Colorado Springs earned this distinction despite housing costs inching toward $190,000 more than the national average of $365,616, per the list.
Steve Posey, city community development manager, said rent in the Southeast hovers around $1,300–$1,400 per month, which totals $15,600 to $16,800 per year.
Posey added that the average income in the area is $39,832.
This means many residents spend a significant portion of their salary on rent, which then creates a domino effect that financially stifles several residents.
“For a long time, the real estate industry has used a 30-percent figure to determine if housing is affordable based on your income,” Posey said. “If you’re paying more than 30 percent of your income on housing, you’re paying too much. … In the Southeast, when you look up what it cost to rent an apartment, own and maintain a car, [life] becomes tough.”
The city recognized the housing issue and has worked to develop affordable options in the Southeast as well as across Colorado Springs.
Posey said the city helped with the financing for the Village at Solid Rock development, a 77-unit complex with 2- and 3-bedroom apartments with rent around $1,050 that broke ground in April.
The Village at Solid Rock is slated to open in summer 2023.
“And that’s only one of about five projects that are happening in the Southeast part of the city,” Posey said. “If you add all the apartments together, it’s over 1,000 new apartments that or either under construction or will be built in the Southeast of Colorado Springs. The average rent across all five of those projects is below $1,000 per month.”
Other Southeast projects include: Draper Commons, Shooks Run, Paloma Gardens, Academy Heights, Pinnacle Point and Bentley Commons.
The projects, which will cost more than $221 million to construct, are expected to be completed in 2023.
Posey said the new and affordable housing would lessen the financial burden on families struggling with increasing rent.
He added that the city won’t stop at housing, and is also working on a “transportation masterplan.”
ConnectCOS, is a city-wide transportation plan that will study opportunities to “enhance the ability of everybody to get around the city.”
“When you add transportation to [rent costs] – almost everyone around the city has to drive to get to work or to help their kids – that adds up pretty quickly,” Posey said. “Then if you have small credit card debt … more than half of your income is going out the door for necessities and you don’t have much money left over to purchase things like food. We’re doing what we can to help people afford to live in this city.”
While the city continues to host open houses to provide updates and listen to community viewpoints about ConnectCOS, Posey said the transportation project will take years to complete.
“Sometimes these things take a decade or more to all come together and get built,” he said. “It’s one of those things where we need more time and people to support a system like [ConnectCOS]. But what we’re doing for housing and transportation is important for the city. This is going to help a lot of people.”