In late April, I had many great conversations about the city’s affordable housing shortage. On April 25, I attended the Colorado Springs Business Journal’s Housing Solutions from Across America breakfast at First Presbyterian Church (the CSBJ is the Indy’s sister paper, and the Indy was a sponsor), followed by a conversation with Colorado Springs Housing Authority Executive Director Chad Wright, and a handful of other local affordable housing complex managers. On April 28, I moderated the Forward Food Summit panel in Denver, which focused on community development and food access. Among the panelists were Colorado Springs City Councilor Yolanda Avila, Harrison District 2 board member and Southeast Springs resident Jeannie Orozco, and Pikes Peak Justice & Peace Commission Executive Director/Hillside resident Victoria Stone.
The summit’s purpose was to explicitly talk about gentrification’s role in the food system. The panel was hosted by the Food Rescue Alliance that includes, among others, the Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs Food Rescues (where I am employed). Real solutions were presented, such as mixed-income housing and increasing tax credits for developing affordable housing.
But what’s equally important and often missing from the conversation about housing, is how, where and what people will eat in their neighborhoods. Affordable fresh food access is just as important as affordable housing.
Around the same time that Colorado Springs was named one of the best places in the country to live by U.S. News & World Report, it also tied for worst in the nation for walkability to access to fresh foods in a study by real estate brokerage Redfin. But while the former resulted in a media blitz, there was less coverage of the latter.
Our city doesn’t excel at providing all its residents with fresh food, largely because it’s so auto-centric. In some neighborhoods, like Hillside, food options are limited to 7-11, unless you can drive elsewhere. Buses do connect people to stores and restaurants, but grocery stores often aren’t on bus lines, which are mostly close to fast food places and convenience stores — not many healthy food options there.
As the director of programs at the nonprofit Springs Food Rescue, I often hear stories from residents who have extreme challenges acquiring affordable fresh food, jolting within me memories of traveling on the city bus with my kids to do the same. I hear things like, “When considering my bus route and how far I have to walk to get my groceries home, it’s easier to carry a candy bar than a bag of lemons.”
Often limited funds and time, along with other issues, contribute to choosing that candy bar. For example, lower-income persons who live near South Nevada Avenue have both a Natural Grocers and a Safeway nearby. But once they walk past the armed guard, the prices on food may be out of reach.
Structures that promote this type of food system for poorer individuals are referred to as “food apartheid” systems rather than “food deserts.” That’s because deserts naturally occur, while apartheid results from policy and development.
But there is hope. While our city has a shortage of affordable housing and food, there isn’t a shortage of proposed solutions, especially with the growing momentum of community development in the Southeast and the interest in housing solutions across the city. The problem and its solutions affect us all.
On the positive end, we are getting closer to understanding the scope of the issue. As part of a Colorado Springs Health Foundation grant, Colorado Springs Food Rescue and El Paso County Department of Public Health are working on a food assessment map to help identify and further advocate for areas with limited fresh food access and identify opportunities for the birth of neighborhood food options.
There’s also real opportunity to cultivate our budding local food economy to create jobs for low-income people: From growing food, to processing it, distributing it, and selling it. As Bart Mitchell, president and CEO of The Community Builders, the country’s largest developer of mixed-income housing, pointed out at the recent CSBJ event, the Springs has land, along with housing. We can use that land to grow food — even year-round if we build greenhouses.
We also should consider urging the Colorado Springs Food Policy Advisory Board to put forth new recommendations, such as mandating a number of fresh food access points within a certain mile radius or limiting the amount of “fast/convenient” food in neighborhoods.
Affordable housing may not be a quick fix, but let’s look on the bright side: We have an opportunity to solve two problems at once. As we’re looking for solutions to our housing problem, we should take the time as a community to include plans for equitable food access.