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I recently drove through the industrial area of Elyria-Swansea in northeast Denver, and it was hard to believe I was on my way to a greenhouse. The Nestle Purina Pet Care Company manufacturing facility stood out among vast warehouses, manufacturing plants, junkyards and signs for auto body repairs.

Upon closer inspection, one of those warehouse buildings is indeed a greenhouse. On a blind corner of York and 47th Street, The GrowHaus, nonprofit organization, has taken a vacant building and turned it into a gardening oasis in little more than a year. The GrowHaus is an indoor farm, and even in early spring it is clearly thriving. Due to the otherwise bleak environment, the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is considered a food desert, because there is no access to fresh produce of any kind within three miles in any direction (and the closest source is Walmart). While that may not sound like a great distance to many of us, it is the difference between eating healthy food or not for the disadvantaged, low-income residents that live there and don't necessarily have transportation. The soil here is so toxic that new soil has to be imported and raised beds have to be used to grow any food.


The term 'food desert' has been getting more attention lately, as inner city areas across the country become increasingly isolated from one of the most important human needs -- fresh food. The GrowHaus founders were interested in taking at least one of those food deserts in the U.S. off the list.

In the time since The GrowHaus established itself only a little more than a year ago, it has accomplished several phases of a major rehab and remodel to develop a nonprofit educational center and provide both skills and opportunities for the surrounding neighborhood.

A small greenhouse room is packed efficiently with a host of herbs, vegetable starts, vermiculture bins of compost, and assorted spring greens. A permaculture design of aquaponics allows the staff to raise tilapia, trout and perch underneath the plants while water pumps filter the tanks and fertilize the plants -- a process that yields up to four times more produce than conventional methods and uses 90 percent less water.It's quite meaningful to be able to grow produce and raise protein in such a contained system, and this is crucial to feeding a community.

The project's missions are food production, distribution, and education. The members hope to raise chickens and have a farmer's market next summer, and to eventually host music events and art shows, add a café, classrooms, an outdoor demonstration garden, and a commercial aquaponics facility as well. The goal is to be producing all of its income in-house, while still accepting food stamps and allowing residents to trade volunteer work for food, to maintain affordability. But more than anything, The GrowHaus wants to build and maintain a relationship with the community.

In that spirit, The GrowHaus has dedicated its short existence to innovation and sustainability, but most of all to inviting the world into its space. From the number of people working as volunteers, to the space being rented by a local herbalist, to the large group of interested visitors on the Friday morning tours, it seems to be working.

Environmental and Food Justice issues go hand in hand. It is a significant link which people often overlook, as I did. But as a part of Earth Month, CU Environmental Center has collaborated with other organizations all over town to bring Environmental/Food Justice Week, this week, to Boulder. Please check out some thoughtful film trailers, clips, information and events that will open your eyes and heart at: ecenter.colorado.edu/component/content/article/444-ej-week.

And don't forget to come out on April 21 to CU-Boulder Mathematics 100 at 7 p.m. for internationally recognized environmentalist and justice advocate Winona LaDuke. She will be speaking about indigenous strategies for food security and environmental justice, and there will be a Q&A afterward.

Katherine Doan is the communications coordinator for the CU Environmental Center. If you have any ideas or comments about food/environmental justice, e-mail her at katherine.doan@colorado.edu.