A poster greets visitors when they enter the GrowHaus, an urban farm and marketplace at East 47th Avenue and York Street in Denver.
“When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist,” the poster reads.
Translated from its original Portuguese, the quote is from the late Brazilian social activist Dom Heider Camara. Some might call the founders and operators of GrowHaus a bit radical or communistic, as well, but they consider themselves “food justice” eco-activists.
GrowHaus is strategically located in an old Lehrer’s Flowers distribution center in Denver’s heavily Hispanic and low-income Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
“There is a lot of attention to this community, due to the I-70 reroute plan and the potential light rail station that may be built. The neighborhood is quite neglected and there isn’t a real community voice,” says Adam Brock, director of operations.
While GrowHaus has 20,000 square feet of available space, it now has a roughly 2,000-square-foot indoor demonstration farm, showcasing the aquaponics process. Aquaponics, a process invented in Australia, is a biological and environmental win-win. It involves rows of stackable bins, tubes and tanks circulating the waste of live fish, along with heated water, for use as plant food. In this case, the fish are tilapia and trout. They provide nutrients for the organic fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in the indoor farm. GrowHaus is also raising worms to help feed the fish. The aquaponics equipment is made locally by Colorado Aquaponics.
Cody Gould, executive director, and Brock – both 25, slim and bearded – first met crawling around together in the dirt in preschool. The bond took them through Denver’s East High School and lasted through their college years spent apart. Their commitment to societal justice now has brought them back together as kindred eco-activist spirits, “playing” in the dirt once more while managing the nonprofit GrowHaus.
“This neighborhood is a ‘food desert,’ Gould says, noting that as in many low-income areas, there are no grocery stores for miles – in this case, three. “We’re trying to grow it here where it’s needed most,” he says. “The community is really excited about it.”
“It’s all about food justice,” Brock explains. “It’s about who grows our food, where it is grown, and who gets to eat, as well as the celebration of eating food that is good, clean and fair.”
GrowHaus’ mission is to provide healthy food to low-income neighborhoods such as Swansea, because a lack of such contributes to the cycle of poverty. In fact, Brock and Gould say that the goal is not for them and their founders to keep GrowHaus under their direction. Rather, they hope to build a foundation for a self-sustaining community center where the local residents will themselves produce and sell the crops they grow. Brock, who studied sustainability and permaculture, says urban agriculture is “at the hub of everything from climate change to social justice to public health.”
GrowHaus, originally conceived by real estate developer Paul Tamburello and activist Ashara Ekundayo in 2009, operates on a combination of initial investments, donations and grant money from organizations such as Kaiser Permanente and the Denver Office of Economic Development. Classes are offered to the public at a fee, which also brings in money. Current offerings include Composting with Worms, Food Justice, Introduction to Aquaponics, and Seed Swapping and Planting.
Ultimately, the plan is to fund GrowHaus primarily by selling produce grown in-house. Many volunteers and interns are working to get GrowHaus up and operating, but more assistance and donations are needed.
“This place was like an indoor jungle when we bought it – overgrown and neglected. It had been vacant for over five years,” Brock says.
They are especially seeking construction help from carpenters, electricians, engineers, jackhammer operators and roofers, but any and all help is welcome.
If You Go
4751 York St.
Denver, Colorado 80216