Partner Spotlight

Q&A: COVID-19 Fresh Food Fund in Denver with Kristina Welch, The Co-op at 1st

Date: July 16, 2020

The Co-op at 1st serves 250 families through PHA’s COVID-19 Fresh Food Fund deployment in Denver, Colo. For 12 weeks, Denver communities will be receiving 1,000 PHA Fresh Boxes – each containing 50 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Kristina Welch

Can you tell me about Jovial Concepts and the Co-op at 1st? How do they work together?

Jovial Concepts is a nonprofit that has been around for the last 10 years. We started by transforming lawns into gardens as a response to low food access and the large disconnection between the families we were working with and the food system. We wanted to reignite the spark between families, community, and food. Three years ago, we purchased a community center, the Co-op at 1st, located in West Denver’s Barnum neighborhood. The Co-op is currently owned by Jovial, but I’m very excited that by September the Co-op will be a true cooperative entity that has membership and investment opportunities and can really support the neighborhood in a way that we hadn’t been able to up until now.

We have 83 entrepreneurs at the Co-op at 1st, most of whom are minority first-time business owners, and we are really excited to be able to take about 20% of their rent money and match it. After three years, if they meet specific business goals, they will be able to get a grant back to expand and continue their first business. Every entrepreneur at The Co-op focuses on health and wellness, food, medicine, exercise, or physical therapy. It’s a beautiful synchronicity between the food efforts of Jovial and the entrepreneurial efforts of The Co-op.

Tell me about how you’ve evolved to meet needs during COVID-19.

Having an empty community center is the strangest feeling, but it’s been a great opportunity for us to step up and show the community what our values are. Our chefs have been cooking 800 meals a week for kids - including milk, fruit, and a fresh catered entree.

Our farmers market has also developed. There are all these families trying to find creative ways to make money. They are working with their kids on craft projects. Two high school boys are selling tomato seedlings. Other families are doing jams and jellies.

It’s great to offer people a peaceful, safe place to be. One of our volunteers, Danny, who is handicapped, took over the management of a lot of stuff in the market. He wrote this post recently and said he hadn’t been happy in four years. He had failed in a business project because he had no support. Seeing how much support we offer our volunteers and vendors, he said the Co-op is his family now.

When you have a place where the energy is all focused on community and making people feel safe and whole, they are more willing to express their needs and create community together. It’s been an amazing journey for everyone.

It was amazing to see how these little things can make a huge difference for someone.

PHA Fresh Box Tell Me About How the COVID-19 Fresh Food Fund fits into your offerings?

Right now we are using it as a part of our emergency response to COVID-19. So many people are out of work and in a panic about how to feed their families. PHA’s Fresh Food Fund is an awesome way to create stability for families, especially during an uncertain time. They know they can come in every week and receive a Fresh Box, full of 50 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Our long-term hope is to continue to build a relationship to healthy eating habits and to start introducing communities to programs like SNAP, WIC, and energy assistance. We hope we can migrate the customers who are picking up the Fresh Boxes so that after the program ends they will continue to shop in our market and continue those healthy habits.

If you had a magic wand for your community what would you do?

The toughest thing we see is really large families looking for bulk. If I had a magic wand I would make the Co-op way bigger and have a huge bulk section where people could shop for their whole family.

What’s your favorite success story?

When we met Mandy, she was pregnant (with her third child). It was her first year gardening with us. She came to me crying two weeks after having her child. She said, “you know I’m low income and I’m not sure how we are going to pay for this.” Her son was missing a third of his intestinal tract and had major health complications. She didn’t know what to feed him. He couldn’t breastfeed. The doctors told him he had to be on a liquid squash diet. We had planted almost her entire garden with corn, beans, and squash to start getting her soil amended. Spaghetti squash, winter squash, della cottas. Her garden was so abundant that year that she was able to freeze and preserve food to feed him for the first year and a half of his life. He is seven or eight now. His feeding tubes are all removed. She just sent a picture of him doing cartwheels on the beach. It was amazing to see how these little things can make a huge difference for someone.