Colorado’s most polluted ZIP code is a strange place to find a banana tree.
Yet there it stands, its broad leaves branching six feet out of a pot on the floor of an old flour mill.
Small houses with tidy yards stand to the west. Industrial shops, marijuana businesses, a police vehicle impound lot surround them. Traffic grinds past on the elevated deck of Interstate 70, which cuts the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in half.
A century of industrial development has left the ground too polluted with oil and other chemicals to grow anything. An Environmental Protection Agency cleanup project changed very little.
The nearest grocery store is two miles away, meaning it’s more convenient for the residents of ZIP code 80216 to buy legal marijuana than a fresh tomato.
So, what better place for a banana tree?
That’s the thinking behind The GrowHaus, a nonprofit that pairs food activists with local residents to increase access to healthy food for people in Elyria-Swansea.
“We said from the beginning we wanted to be community led, community driven,” said Executive Director Coby Gould.
The first group of volunteers who began refurbishing the flour mill called it the “grow house.” They tweaked the spelling as a tribute to the Eastern European immigrants who originally settled Elyria-Swansea, Gould said.
“We also liked the imagery of a home — a place you can come home to, a place people and plants can grow,” he said.
The banana tree is just one curiosity in the 20,000-square-foot building. It’s also home to an aquaculture operation — which raises tilapia and bass and uses their waste to fertilize vegetable beds — a greenhouse, a mushroom-cultivation room, a fresh food market and a hydroponic farm that grows lettuce for Denver restaurants like ChoLon and The Squeaky Bean to help pay program expenses.
But most food from The GrowHaus is consumed within walking distance.
The nonprofit has three missions: food cultivation, food distribution and food education.
Each week, volunteers and staff compile boxes full of produce grown at The GrowHaus or donated by Colorado farms and businesses. They sell for $12 for a single person or $20 for a family. The produce boxes include recipes to help people prepare a week’s worth of fresh food. Prices are higher for people who live outside ZIP code 80216.
The building also includes a market that is likely the only place in eight square miles where you can buy beets and squash. Neighbors pay a wholesale price, while people from outside 80216 pay slightly more.
Above all, The GrowHaus is proving how closely tied are the concepts of food access and education.
Neighbors take classes in seed cultivation. The GrowHaus sells some of the seedlings its students have nurtured. Every Monday morning, local families gather to listen to music and attend a free cooking class led by a nutritionist.
Elyria-Swansea is a neighborhood with a deep history. It was settled in the 1870s, and some families go back generations. It’s also a popular landing spot for immigrants. More than 80 percent of the residents are Hispanic and atleast a third lack a high school degree. A third of the population faces food insecurity – double the city’s average – according to the Denver Department of Environmental Health.
The GrowHaus fills the neighborhood’s need for wholesome food, while also attempting to reverse some of the environmental damage the area has suffered. Out back, the staff keep beehives – not for the honey but to provide pollinators for nearby trees.
And the staff mycologist is experimenting with mushrooms that can break down the oil that fouls the ground in Elyria-Swansea.
Maybe it’s a crazy dream. Or maybe it’s bananas.