Sun Valley — one of the oldest and lowest income neighborhoods in Denver — has always been a food desert.
For years the only place for groceries besides the 7-Eleven on Federal was a tiny store on Decatur, where children could purchase snacks on their way to Rude Park Rec Center. With little in the way of real nutritional food outside of the bodega and taco trucks, 45-year-old Sun Valley native Glenn Harper decided to buy the small building that housed the store in 2012, knowing he had a committed responsibility to feed his community.
Appearing as a small ordinary cafe, the Sun Valley Kitchen acts like a regular restaurant by day, serving breakfast and lunch. Further exploration unveils a community room with food waiting for distribution and inspirational handwritten signs filling the walls with encouragement: When you reach the top, keep climbing.
Pictures of smiling children hang like garlands, and underneath it all a turtle named Michelangelo swims — though the kids have informed Glenn that he REALLY should be named Donatello for correct homage to his namesake Ninjas.
The activities in this small building are disproportionate to its size, and the impact is greatly felt by members of the community, many of whom are food-challenged.
Every evening a free community meal fills the bellies of 50-70 children and families, who also show up on Wednesdays and Saturdays to the No Cost Grocery Program, a food bank supported by Denver Food Rescue and We Don’t Waste, two organizations getting fresh food into the hands of people citywide.
In the U.S. 40 percent of the food we grow winds up in the dumpster — together these three organizations get that food into the hands of those who need it most. Given that 94 percent of Sun Valley’s residents live in subsidized housing, this community fits that bill.
Glenn “never dreamed [they’d] be doing something like this,” but after living 20 years in the shadow of the Bronco’s stadium and working 17 years as a fresh-cut fry vendor at festivals, he knew his little kitchen could help his neighbors.
“It was a really organic process that happened. We were able to take our time and kind of figure out how to best fit in and serve the community. When we purchased the building it was a huge responsibility — it used to be the grocery store. People were used to coming in and out.”
As he spoke the kitchen bustled with preparations for the 20-25 kids who would soon arrive to learn how to cook from volunteer Vivi Lemus, who has been running the program for about four years. In a country where fewer and fewer people cook, this is a lifetime investment in healthy choices and self-sufficiency.
If this was all Sun Valley Kitchen was doing, it would be enough. But on top of they’ve launched an innovative program training chefs from the community in preparation for owning their own food-based businesses.
“Every Thursday we showcase the local chefs and all of the profits go into a fund for them to help them with their business,” says General Manager Ruben Valenti. “Our staff is all local residents and youth from the neighborhood, and the community center is all run by volunteers from surrounding areas.”
The featured chef in October was Najah Abu Serryah, a Jordanian resident of Sun Valley whose roots are celebrated in her cooking. “I love introducing new cuisines to the neighborhood, and cooking here has given me the confidence to know I can do it.” The most popular dish she makes is falafel which Glenn assures me is “the best he’s ever had.” “I hope one day I will own my own restaurant in the neighborhood,” she says simply, “serving Arabic dishes.”
“The goal is following the redevelopment plan for Sun Valley” that has been laid out by the City of Denver, Glenn explained. “In the plan there will be micro-restaurants. When the opportunities come online, the Sun Valley residents will be ready to step into those opportunities.” Partnering with Mi Casa Resource Center, Sun Valley Kitchen is developing a six-week curriculum that will teach the chefs everything from menu planning to budgeting and marketing.
To support Sun Valley Kitchen and help foster unity and food-accessibility within this historical multi-cultural neighborhood, there’s no better way than grabbing a bite. And if you’re a community resident in need of a good meal, dinner is served every night at 5 p.m. sharp.