With households grappling with meals insecurity amid the pandemic, a preschool in Denver has arrange its personal recent meals market
The Trenna Richardson family meets almost every week for “Soul Food Sunday”, a wholesome spread that often consists of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, vegetables, corn and cornbread.
“We just go all out on Sundays,” said Richardson, who teaches toddlers at Clayton Early Learning in northeast Denver.
But feeding a household of nine comes at a high cost, which Richardson previously avoided by turning to local food banks. For the past few months, however, she has been relying on her school to replenish her pantry. Every Thursday afternoon, Richardson rolls a cart through a market that Clayton Early Learning opened on the main Denver campus in October, searching shelves and bins of groceries and supplies along with other staff and families of their students. Since preschool added the Clayton Cares Market, it has given families 13,856 pounds of free groceries – everything from salmon and turkey to frozen pumpkin pie, milk, potatoes, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and other fresh vegetables and fruits.
And it has restored a sense of dignity to families and employees who need a little extra help amid the pandemic by letting them choose the foods to take home. a non-profit organization of chalkboards and pantries across the country.
“It also provides stress relief for families who trade off important basic needs like housing or medical bills and buying nutrient-adequate groceries,” said Sarah Berkman, vice president of development at Clayton Early Learning and a key organizer of the market.
Food insecurity worsened across the state during the pandemic as families struggled financially, said Ashley Wheeland, public policy director for Hunger Free Colorado, a nonprofit that connects people in need with food resources.
“The pandemic has resulted in a lot of people losing income and job support, so they had to figure out how to pay their bills,” Wheeland said. “And you can save on food, among other things, and that leads to food insecurity for far too many families.”
Polls from Hunger Free Colorado found that the number of respondents who said they were food insecure tripled to 33% during the pandemic.
Parents with young children at home were among the most starving people. More than 40% said they suffered from food insecurity. Breadwinners in these families often work in entry-level and service-industry jobs – jobs that were cut during the pandemic, Wheeland said. People of color also tend to face higher levels of food insecurity than white people, she added.
Schools have become an integral part of helping families ensure their children are kept safe by giving free meals and providing free meals to every student through federal government funding.
“For children, food is just as important as books,” said Wheeland.
Clayton’s Market grew out of a grocery promotion program that ran preschool in two locations, including the main campus parking lot, when COVID-19 closed classrooms and buckled up families, many of whom were already struggling to cover their expenses and suffered job losses. The school, whose main campus is 20 acres on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, primarily teaches children from low-income families.
Trenna Richardson, left, a teacher at Clayton Early Learning, volunteers help families like Yaneth Romo and their son Eduardo Lima, 4, right, shop for groceries and other essentials at the Clayton Cares Market on the school’s campus. Richardson also purchases many groceries from the market for her own family. (Kathryn Scott, Special on The Colorado Sun)
About a month into the pandemic began, Clayton launched early learning weekly food gifts in partnership with Mile High Early Learning and food insecurity organizations including the Food Bank of the Rockies, Denver Food Rescue, and the Denver Metro Emergency Food Network. With around 30 volunteers running a drive-through distribution point on their home campus, the preschool catered for an average of 150 families and more than 300 children each week for four months, loading suitcases with meals, snacks, non-perishable groceries, diapers and other supplies.
However, the fundraising efforts put a strain on staff, who scaled back and reshaped their approach to family nutrition. In November 2020, with the support of the Food Bank of the Rockies, Clayton Early Learning began distributing groceries to 75 to 125 families every two weeks and continued these freebies through last August.
Berkman recalls handing out carrier bags weighted down with long-life tinned food that hardly contained any fresh food. She clearly remembers packing bags with a can of green beans or beans to feed a family of four.
Berkman knew there had to be a better way.
In the fall, the preschool set about converting one of its brick buildings, previously rented to other nonprofits, into a market based on the idea of giving families choices or resources in a “culturally and ethnically appropriate way,” like Berkman called it providing. “That means families can take away the types of foods they are used to cooking with them.
When families enter the Clayton Cares Market, they can grab a shopping cart – while their child can follow along with their own green and white miniature shopping cart – and stroll through the aisles between tall metal shelves with groceries, hygiene products and cleaning products. Freezers and refrigerators stocked with meat, fish, vegetables and frozen desserts stand in one corner of the market. Another corner doubles as a small library where students can choose books and sit at a small wooden table or on a brightly colored rug to spell the alphabet, to flip through the pages.
The market is rounded off by shelves with children’s clothing and diapers in another corner and a cash register in the last corner, next to a row of tables in which decorated wooden containers contain fresh carrots, onions, potatoes, peppers and other fresh products. As the families complete their visit, volunteers weigh their food and ask for feedback on what else they would like to have in store.
Ana Rodriguez, 4, uses her own small shopping cart to help her mother Adriana Ibarra and sister Alexandra Rodriguez, 1 find groceries and other necessities at Clayton Cares Market. (Kathryn Scott, Special on The Colorado Sun)
Recently, the market has added staples like flour, sugar, salt and pepper – “things that we take for granted and that we cook with every day,” said Berkman.
This is especially important for the Clayton Early Learning neighborhood, which is located in a food wasteland. Fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Church’s Chicken are within walking distance of the school.
While the market is currently open to student families and employees, Berkman hopes to expand the market’s presence to serve the wider community. Currently the market is backed by private funds and groceries are sourced through Amazon, Shamrock Foods, Safeway and the Denver nonprofit We Don’t Waste, Berkman said.
Kammy Hagedorn, a single mother of four living in Denver, estimates she can save at least $ 200 a month by visiting Clayton Cares Market, where she stock up on groceries and other expensive staples like diapers.
“It helped me cut the cost of diapers, especially on diapers, and had snacks for them all week,” said Hagedorn, 39, who is sending three of her children to Clayton Early Learning.
Health and Wellness Manager Jennifer Pham (right) and Project Manager Joan Deming put fresh fruits and vegetables on the shelves before shoppers reach the Clayton Cares Market on the Clayton Early Learning Campus in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special on The Colorado Sun)
She finds everything she needs in her weekly market visits and is grateful that she can choose what to take home so that she can give her children the meals they like and avoid food waste.
“Who knows our children better than we do?” said Hawthorn.
For parents like Hagedorn, the market has become an oasis – you are guaranteed to find nutritious food here.
Families across the board want “fresh, high-quality products,” said Kristen Wilford-Adams, interim director of health and wellness at Clayton Early Learning.
“We consider our nutrition and health programs to be fundamental to success in life, not just in school but in life,” said Wilford-Adams. “These children grow and develop every minute of every single day and it is so important to give them the most nutritious food to support healthy growth and development.”
Prynce Collier, 4, helps his mother, Vanessa Ramos, carry a basket of fresh vegetables as the two of them make their way to Clayton Cares Market. (Kathryn Scott, Special on The Colorado Sun)
Access to food is vital for Clayton students, Wilford-Adams said. Students get an estimated 80% of their weekly caloric intake from meals and snacks offered in school, according to meal numbers and surveys collected by preschool.
“Often times it is seen as a privilege to eat healthy and we are trying to change that,” she added.
With Clayton Cares Market, Richardson can ensure that her grandchildren, whom she says have infinite stomachs, have balanced meals both on Soul Food Sunday and the rest of the week. She tries to “prepare hearty meals for them, with all the components in place”.
That’s gotten more manageable for her with the 10-15 pounds of groceries she carries home from the market for a few weeks – everything from milk, eggs, bread, and fresh vegetables to chicken breasts and fish that are hard to find and hard to pay for are grocery stores.
“It’s helped us tremendously,” said Richardson, adding, “it helps me get some of the staples like between pay periods.”