New mobile grocer seeks to close culinary access gap

A sign reading ‘To accomplish Great Things we must not only Act, but also Dream not only Plan, but also Believe’ sits amid baskets of organic Colorado-grown produce during the March 7 opening of The Helping Hand Neighborhood Grocery Store. [Express photos/Regan Foster]

Entrepreneur brings fresh, affordable options directly to Southeast Colorado Springs food deserts

Elena Salinas likes to say, “food is love, and I love people.”

The entrepreneur grew up cooking alongside her mother, who, she said, was the first person to volunteer to make a meal for a friend or family member was in need. From that upbringing — sprinkled with the challenges of being a young mother trying to feed her family on just her husband’s income — grew Southeast Colorado Springs’ first mobile grocer.

The Helping Hand Neighborhood Grocery Store made its debut Saturday, March 7, at Mission Trace Shopping Center. The grocer offers fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, bread and home-care necessities such as toilet paper and dish soap via a pop-up market that serves the Pikes Peak Park, Knob Hill, Meadows Park and Hillside neighborhoods.

Most of the produce is organic and grown within the state, and Salinas works directly with the producers to keep prices low. On its first day, a steady stream of shoppers picked from baskets of organic lemons and limes, a wide-range of onions and potatoes, leafy greens like kale and chard, radishes, several types of apples, and Colorado-produced cage-free eggs. Prices ranged from 50 cents per piece of fruit to $4.50 for a loaf of freshly baked whole wheat bread.

The grocer is state certified under the Colorado Cottage Foods Act, a law that allows for the commercial sale of certain low-risk foods — including raw, uncut produce, baked goods and locally produced eggs — without license or certification. The Helping Hand currently accepts cash and cards for payment, but is in the process of getting approval to accept EBT, or electronic benefit transfer, cards.

“We’re trying to provide access to affordable, healthy food in places that really need this option,” Salinas, the founder and owner of The Helping Hand said. “We’re focused on food deserts, we’re focused on underserved neighborhoods, families, seniors. We’re hitting the places that have these people in them.”

“I think people feel like eating healthy is a trend and it’s not. It’s something we should be doing in our daily lives.” — Elena Salinas, founder and owner of The Helping Hand Neighborhood Grocery Store.

Closing the accessibility gap

A dozen years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture embarked on a mission to assess the extent and characteristics of communities that qualify as so-called “food deserts.” The resulting report, “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences,”  found that as of 2009 some 23.5 million households, roughly 2.2 percent of the population at the time, lived in low-income communities that are further than one mile from a large grocery store or supermarket.

It’s no secret Southeast Colorado Springs meets those criteria, especially when it comes to accessing healthy, fresh and nutritious ingredients. In fact, according to the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas, most of Colorado Springs south of East Platte Avenue and east of Interstate 25 is considered a food desert.

It’s a reality that Salinas understands all too well. A stay-at-home mother who calls the Deerfield Homes neighborhood, she remembers what it was like to walk across South Academy Boulevard to King Soopers with a stroller and two young children in tow. She constantly had to juggle not just what she could carry back, but what she could afford on her family’s single income.

“I was going to the grocery store and putting stuff back at the register,” she said. “It made me feel bad.”

In 2017, she took the first step on her journey to provide a solution.

“I conducted residential surveys. … I just asked basic questions: What are you shopping for weekly, household products and food products?” she said. “I took the hundreds of surveys that I did, the conversations that I had, and I put that all together to create a vision of what people wanted.”

Armed with the data and the feedback, Salinas enrolled in The Thrive Network’s Entrepreneurial Season Course. The program takes students from a rough sketch of an idea through the myriad steps necessary to launch their own businesses. And it does so with a community-first approach that empowers students to identify problems in their neighborhoods, come up with creative solutions to solve the issue, and then find ways to become financially sustainable.

Salinas graduated the program in November, and, with the help of grant funding from Colorado Springs Food Rescue and the Colorado Health Foundation, was ready to take her store quite literally on the road four months later.

Check it out: The Helping Hand Neighborhood Grocery Store has four more dates currently scheduled this months. For more information or updates, follow them on Facebook at @thehelpinghandneighborhoodgrocerystore.
Here are the dates and times currently on schedule for this month:
* 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 14 at Mission Trace Shopping Center, 3031 S. Academy Blvd.
* 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 14, Urbanites Leading the Pikes Peak Region, 506 E. Moreno Ave.
* 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 28 at The Community, 3750 Astrozon Blvd., suite 120.
* 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 29, Urbanites Leading the Pikes Peak Region, 506 E. Moreno Ave.

According to the USDA, most of Colorado Springs south of East Platte Avenue and east of Interstate 25 is considered a food desert, meaning it does not have easy access to fresh food.

All the fresh moves

The plan is to start off slowly — relatively speaking. For the month of March, the rolling market, also dubbed “A FRESH MOVE” is scheduled to be:

  • at Mission Trace Shopping Center, 3031 S. Academy Blvd., from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 14;
  • at Urbanites Leading the Pikes Peak Region, 506 E. Moreno Ave., from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 15 and 29; and
  • at The Community, 3750 Astrozon Blvd., suite 120, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 28.

Upcoming markets are expected to include food resources and education, and cooking demonstrations from neighborhood leaders such as Chef Aubrey “Bo” Bowale.

Salinas hopes to grow its footprint in the coming months by partnering with Southeast social service organizations, elementary schools and even Pikes Peak Community College. It’s all part of her mission of getting healthful, fresh food into as many hands as possible.

“We need to bring something to this side of town,” she said. “I think people feel like eating healthy is a trend and it’s not. It’s something we should be doing in in our daily lives.”

Salinas knows spreading the word about healthful, affordable food won’t be easy, but she’s not one to back down for the challenge.

“I’m a fierce mom on a mission,” she said with a grin. “ I’m fighting for this. … For me, food has been home. To feed people brings my heart joy.”

She paused for a minute to ring up some customers and to take a quick look over the folding tables overflowing with colorful produce.

“It’s so cool to see your vision come together,” Salinas said. “Here’s my vision. This is what I’ve ben envisioning for so long.”

regan.foster@southeastexpress.org

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