Claire Westcott, sous chef at Comal Heritage Food Incubator, and Gisela Juarez at the ‘pay-how-you-can’ farmers market. (Provided by Focus Points)

Before the pandemic, Gisela Juarez was working on improving her cooking and English language skills with the dream of opening a restaurant. But in March, she found herself out of work and struggling to pay for rent and food like thousands of other Coloradans.

There’s still a lot Juarez needs to patch together to keep her family fed, but a new “pay-how-you-can” farmers market in her neighborhood, Globeville Elyria-Swansea, has become one important resource.

“We’re eating everything healthy,” she said. “It’s no chemicals, no fast food, all organic.”

Juarez found the market as a participant in the Comal Heritage Food Incubator, a restaurant and work development program for immigrants and refugees from the Focus Points Family Resource Center. She also helps out at their food stand to provide healthy food for other members of her community.

Focus Points — a nonprofit providing programs and services in northeast Denver — is one of the organizations behind the “pay-how-you can” farmers market, along with the Lost City cafe and East Denver Food Hub. The weekly market opened July 1 and will run from 5-8 p.m. every Wednesday through October.

The Lost City Market features 15 vendors, providing everything from fresh vegetables to bread and flour. Comal Heritage Incubator is selling salsas and specialty dishes like Venezuelan potato salad. East Denver Food Hub provides fresh produce from immigrant-run farms often left out of mainstream farmers markets. Juarez said her favorite item was her sourdough loaf from Rebel Bread, which she has for breakfast every morning.

In order to put on a “pay-how-you-can” market, Michael Graham, owner of Lost City, said that some people spend more than they usually would, while others pay less or nothing. Community members can also donate to the market or volunteer, especially if they speak Spanish.

The market extends from the Denver Metro Emergency Food Network, another partnership between Lost City, Focus Points and other organizations in Denver. Since March, DMEFN says it has delivered more than 250,000 meals to homebound families, elderly residents and other individuals in need.

A family shops at the new farmers market. (Provided by Focus Point)

Jules Kelty, executive director of Focus Points, said the farmers market and emergency meals grew out of high demand for accessible, healthy food in Globeville Elyria-Swansea and surrounding neighborhoods.

“We needed to adapt to the needs of members in our community,” Kelty said. “We noticed at the beginning of the pandemic that food security emerged as one of the biggest issues.”

Focus Points and Lost City are neighbors in Globeville Elyria-Swansea, and the market takes place on the cafe’s patio and the parking lot they share at the TAXI development.

Globeville Elyria-Swansea is considered one of the largest food deserts in Denver with no access to affordable, healthy meals at grocery stores. Kelty described systemic issues that lead to food insecurity like transportation injustice. I-70 cuts right through Globeville, and bus routes barely make it up to the low-income, majority non-white neighborhood.

“As a ‘foodie city,’ people may not see food insecurity right in front of them, but it’s right next door,” Kelty said. “It’s created so many barriers for our community to get the food they need to feed their families.”

It’s not the easiest time to be a restaurant or nonprofit, either. Kelty said her organization needed to adjust staff and resources as demand for programs like food insecurity skyrocketed, while regular operations grinded to a halt. However, she added that Focus Points has started to stabilize, thanks to hard work from her team and support from the philanthropic community for their direct response efforts.

In March, Graham said he made the difficult decision to close his cafe and focus on helping individuals hit hardest by the pandemic in the community.

“We shut down our operations and said hey if we’re going to go out with a bang, we want to go out getting meals to people that need it,” Graham said.

As he got involved in DMEFN, Graham emphasized the fortitude of community members in Globeville Elyria-Swansea. Focus Points and Lost City intentionally hired people from the neighborhood to deliver emergency food, and the same team is helping put on the market, he said.

“It’s just inspiring seeing (residents) step up to help support their own community with such grace and resilience,” he said.

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