DENVER — A Denver nonprofit opened a free grocery store to help put food on the table for families who are struggling.
Inside warehouse 36 off East 53rd Avenue, a street overrun by warehouses, makeshift shelves are lined with all kinds of goods and a generosity ready to feed Coloradans in need.
“Canned goods, and dry goods, cereals and the necessities, like flour, and sugar and milk,” Jim Scharper said, the founder of Feeding Denver’s Hungry.
Scharper launched Feeding Denver’s Hungry Free Grocery Store in May 2021.
“In the state of Colorado, I believe this is the first free grocery store that exists,” Scharper said.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, families roam up and down a few aisles and load a cart with food during a 15-minute span. The experience is unlike a food bank where boxed are prepared in advance; people can select anything on the shelves, and it includes fresh fruit, meat, ready-to-go meals, dog food and snacks.
“Here we have about ten different types of pasta to choose from, and some of it is whole wheat, some of it is regular spaghetti,” Scharper said.
A portion of a shelf is home to small toys and crayons for children who accompany their parents.
“It takes the focus away from what’s going on around them,” Scharper said.
Once a month, on the last Monday of each month, families can sign up to shop at the free grocery store. The slots are limited and are given on a first-come, first-served basis.
“They come out of here with a carload of food enough for a family of four or five. That's going to last them for several weeks,” Scharper said.
He says given the limited supply of food and volunteers, they can only accommodate shoppers by appointment and can’t accept walk-ins.
Scharper describes the grocery store as a safety net for anyone struggling to get on their feet.
In 2008, he battled depression and became an alcoholic.
“I was still working. I was just an alcoholic who had spent money doing the wrong things and ended up broke and on the street, so I didn’t qualify for a lot of things,” Scharper said.
He remembers missing meals when he lived out of his car for five months during winter because he didn't meet the qualifications for free food. He eventually sought help.
At the end of 2009, Scharper gave up drinking and began paying it forward. He started handing out 25 sandwiches once or twice a month and his mission grew over the next twelve years.
Scharper was inspired by organizations in other states that launched a free grocery store. He decided to launch the store this year after his nonprofit was forced to move to a new warehouse that didn't have the capacity to allow people to drive up for pre-made boxes of food.
In just three months, Feeding Denver’s Hungry Free Grocery Store provided 3,000 families with groceries.
The nonprofit relies on volunteers and community cash donations to buy food. While it’s not required, shoppers can also make a donation that fits their budget.
“I work with the Food Bank of the Rockies, and we buy things for pennies on the dollar,” Scharper said.
He hopes to increase his reach and the number of days the store is open as more cash donations come in and more people sign up to volunteer. He says the biggest need is volunteers to keep the store running smoothly.