The produce piled atop folding tables in New Freedom Park is almost as vibrant as the clothing and languages of the 135 people gathered to collect it. Organized by Kaizen Food Share (formerly called Kaizen Food Rescue), a Hunger Relief Partner of Food Bank of the Rockies, this weekly food distribution focuses on providing culturally responsive, familiar foods to the majority refugee and immigrant population that inhabits this area in East Denver. It’s one of seven weekly sites that Kaizen operates around the Denver metro area.
“It took us a while to find a way to explain what exactly this was to people living here,” explained Thai Nguyen, founder of Kaizen Food Share. “Calling it a ‘free grocery store’ didn’t resonate with most people. We tried ‘free food distribution,’ but that was also too in-the-weeds. So now we just refer to it as a ‘no-cost bazaar,’ which seems to be the most effective.” She motions to the tables. “And really, it looks like a bazaar, doesn’t it?”
New Freedom Park, a 2-acre plot housing a community garden, playground, soccer field, basketball courts, trees, amphitheater, and green space, opened in 2012 and was designed with input from the residents of the affordable housing apartments surrounding it. On this particular day, elementary-school-aged kids chase a soccer ball around while moms and grandmothers keep watch over younger kids climbing on the playground. Groups of all ages congregate to talk and laugh while waiting for the distribution to begin.
While the home countries of the people who make up this community are ever-changing — at least 22 countries were represented at this distribution, including Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Gambia, Nepal, Malaysia, United States, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Butan, Tíbet, Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Vietnam, Mexico, Cambodia, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Mauritania — the need for nourishing, familiar foods is constant.
While the 50-plot community garden helps alleviate some of the challenges of food apartheid* in this area, in 2022 Kaizen Food Share realized there was a need for more consistent access to ingredients that are frequently used in common dishes across many of these cultures — especially garlic, ginger, and bitter greens.
“The most challenging thing about this site in particular is how much anxiety people have with food,” said Mudah Di (who goes by Di), site coordinator of the New Freedom Park distribution, former Asian Pacific Development Center case manager, and an immigrant from Thailand who herself has experienced food scarcity. “Everyone here has a food-scarcity mindset. It’s what they’ve experienced in their lives: constantly not having enough food. That coupled with the trauma of coming here causes a lot of food anxiety.”
To help alleviate some of that anxiety, Thai, Di, and regular volunteers at the New Freedom Park site have worked hard to order the most-requested food items from Food Bank of the Rockies and East Denver Food Hub, and order enough so that, even with limits applied to things like garlic (7 cloves per person), ginger (3 roots), eggs (1 dozen), and greens (1 of each kind available), everyone can go home with an amount suitable to cook meals that feel like home for their families.
In addition to implementing a limit on popular foods, to keep things as orderly and fair as possible Thai and Di also came up with a ticketing system based on how much food they have each week. Some weeks they have enough to hand out 250 tickets. Sometimes, like this day, they only have enough for 135. Through word of mouth, community members know to arrive early to sign in, get their ticket, and then return in time to be there when their number is called. And to ensure everyone with a ticket can get the foods they want, even if their number is closer to the end than the front of the line, the space around the tables is lined with traffic cones, caution tape strung between them to create a single-file line.
As the distribution begins, a steady line of people streams past the tables. Carts, bags, and boxes fill up with potatoes, pineapples, oranges, bananas, strawberries, leeks, onions, and, of course, ginger, garlic, and greens. Volunteers assist individuals who are unable to carry the food back to their homes or cars. Kids run between adults’ legs. Everyone does their best to communicate, whether through hand motions, smiles, or the help of multilingual volunteers like Fatima, who speaks seven languages.
Standing beside her box of food and chatting with her neighbors, Fato, who is originally from Kenya but has lived in Denver for 20 years, takes a drink of water. “This helps a lot,” she shared. “Especially if SNAP has run out for the month or you haven’t gotten your paycheck or whatever, this helps. Especially if you have kids — they always want to eat! People tell other people about it. We help each other.”
After an hour, everyone has been through the line once and is invited to go through a second time if they want. People have returned home with their food or linger to be with friends. Di has mostly managed to maintain order and is chatting with elder women, each of whom she calls “mama,” just as she refers to all of the women around her as “auntie.” The volunteers begin to break down boxes and clean spills off the soccer field turf. Soon, New Freedom Park will look as it did a few hours earlier. Until the following week, when it will all happen again.
*Food apartheid is a term that describes the systemic and structural inequalities in food access, disproportionately affecting low-income and marginalized communities, particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) populations. The term “food apartheid” emphasizes the intentional and systemic nature of these disparities, as opposed to “food desert,” which suggests a more passive and naturally occurring phenomenon.