Employee-Owned Futures:

Leevers Supermarkets Combats Food Deserts

Kyle Huelsman

Throughout the Denver-Metro area, neighborhoods are divided among those with and without access to healthy food retailers. These “food deserts” are residential areas with limited access to nutritious, healthy, unprocessed foods that are commonly available in major supermarket outlets. Foundations, local governments, and community leaders have raised the alarm over the underlying economic conditions that drive systemic barriers to food access. Simultaneously, with little fanfare, a 78-year-old, Colorado-based supermarket and RMEOC member is creating new opportunities across the metro-area for employee ownership and access to healthy foods.

Although food deserts are not a new phenomenon, it is only until recently that researchers have detailed the geographic scale of the issue and uncovered the striking connection between food access and long-term health outcomes. The Colorado Health Foundation notes that “many chronic diseases have been associated with low consumption of fruits and vegetables, along with high consumption of sugary and high-fat foods. These factors, in tandem with the lack of education on healthy eating and a dearth of exercise opportunities common in food deserts, are taking a documented toll on the health of those who do not have convenient access to a grocery store.”

Food deserts range throughout the metro area’s lowest-income neighborhoods, with major grocery store chains like King Soopers, Safeway, and Albertsons positioning themselves closer to middle- and high-income areas. Unsurprisingly, food deserts are most strongly associated with income and race. According to research in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, “wealthy districts have three times as many supermarkets as poor ones do, that white neighborhoods contain an average of four times as many supermarkets as predominantly black ones.” Simply put, large supermarket chains have decided that servicing even middle and upper middle class communities of color at the same level as they do suburbs is not justifiable.

With the scale and impact of food deserts, Colorado’s philanthropic foundations and local governments are focusing their attention and resources on neighborhood-level solutions to healthy food access. The Denver Healthy Corner Store Initiative provided a $700,000 investment to bring fruits and vegetables to convenience stores which previously did not stock healthy food options. Similarly, Re:Vision, a Westwood-based nonprofit, recently received a $1.2 million grant from the City of Denver’s Office of Economic Development to purchase property for the future Westwood Food Cooperative.

Outside the philanthropic community, a growing business operation is creating economic opportunities and food access options within many of our lowest-resource neighborhoods. Leevers Supermarket, based out of Franktown, Colorado, is an employee-owned supermarket chain with nine stores in the Denver area and fourteen statewide. Under the store banners, Save-A-Lot and Colorado Ranch Market, Leevers has found a niche in the Denver grocery market by positioning itself as a low-cost retailer in neighborhoods with limited access to larger chain stores. Eight of their Save-A-Lot stores border a food desert neighborhood, and six of those locations would leave behind food desert neighborhoods were they to close their doors. Quietly, Leevers is changing the game for healthy food access in the Denver area.

Leevers is not simply opening new grocery stores — they are also impacting the root cause of food deserts — income inequality. Within each of their grocery outlets, Leevers generates dozens of new employee-owned positions, creating not only more jobs with above-market rate wages, but more importantly opportunities for long-term wealth through an employee stock ownership plan, of which all employees will have the opportunity to be a part.

Leevers is bridging the generational poverty gap. In nine Denver neighborhoods, residents are buying and preparing healthy foods for their families, breaking down the barriers surrounding income and food access. And at the same time, employee-owners are expanding their retirement savings and building bridges to their children’s long-term economic opportunities. This is not simply responding to the urgency of today—Leevers is creating a two-generation strategy for long-term empowerment.

Kyle Huelsman, member of the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center board of directors, co-founded the Food Rescue Alliance, where he serves as Executive Director. This non-profit organization provides crucial financial, administrative, and technical support to their “direct-to-shelter” Food Rescue chapters in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs.

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