HEALing food deserts with fresh produce

Kathy Wehrle planted 250 berry bushes in her yard.

She's not sure if they'll be successful. After all, it takes berries awhile to get established, and she's a Registered Dietitian at Parkview Hospital by trade, so berry growing is something she does in her spare time. She calls herself an "under-the-radar" farmer.

But if Wehrle's crops do yield a harvest, the berries will be sold at the McCormick Place Farm Market, where recipients of SNAP and WIC food stamp benefits get discounts on fresh produce.

Kathy Wehrle calls herself an "under-the-radar" farmer.

“I know from a practical standpoint for myself that when there’s an abundance of produce, I’m more likely to buy it,” Wehrle says.

For many people in northeast Indiana, fruits and vegetables are only a supermarket's drive away. But if you’re a senior or low-income resident who lives in a food desert and has limited access to vehicles, eating healthy is not always an easy choice to make.

Sometimes, it’s not even an option.

Instead, residents find themselves shopping at drugstores or gas stations for their daily needs—places with high prices and few options.

Issues like the price of produce, limited access to transportation, and no grocery stores nearby are what Laura Dwire calls “food access barriers,” and they’re problems she is working to solve as Special Projects Coordinator at the St. Joe Community Health Foundation.

In partnership with Parkview Hospital, Dwire manages a project called HEAL, which has evolved into the "Our HEALing Kitchen" program. It addresses access barriers to food at every step of the healthy eating process—from making fresh produce available to low-income residents, to offering food stamp discounts, to teaching cooking classes about how to prepare nutritious meals.

Driven by popular demand, Our HEALing Kitchen’s influence in Fort Wayne is growing, and in coming years, it could benefit residents of all types—low income or not.

Shoppers browse the selection at the State Street Farm Market.

A HEALing community

HEAL stands for Healthy Eating, Active Living.

It’s based on a similar program in Texas designed to help lower obesity rates, and in northeast Indiana, the goal is to prevent health issues before they begin.

“It is substantially easier to prevent obesity in the first place, rather than treat it downwind,” Wehrle says.

It's also a way to address food deserts in Indiana, five of which are in Allen County alone.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a food desert is a place home to at least 500 people that is more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

In Fort Wayne, the areas hit the hardest by this classification also happen to be areas of low income on the Southeast side and Downtown, in the 46803, 46806, and 46802 area codes.

Elderly and low-income residents often struggle to access produce in food deserts.

To help residents in these areas access healthier food, St. Joe Community Health Foundation and Parkview Hospital sponsor HEAL.

It started as a farm market and community garden at the McCormick Place apartments in 2014, giving residents there an easy way to access produce and teaching them how to grow it themselves. It also offered discounts to double the value of SNAP and WIC food stamp vouchers on produce purchased from the garden, and the program caught on, Dwire says.

HEAL began working with other farmers markets around Fort Wayne to offer food stamp benefits. But she and other program leaders quickly learned that access to healthy food is only one part of the equation in creating healthier communities.

Another part is teaching shoppers what to do with the food once they've acquired it.

“We could get produce into their hands, but if they didn’t know how to use it or cook with it, it was getting wasted,” Dwire says. “So that became our second objective under our HEAL—to link education to healthy eating.”

The McCormick Place Farm Market is the original HEAL market at the corner of McCormick and Edsall in Fort Wayne.

With Our HEALing Kitchen, HEAL developed an 8-session curriculum on practical, healthy eating habits, and a comprehensive cookbook to match.

Written by Wehrle, the cookbook covers everything from crockpot meals, to how to freeze and store vegetables, to budget friendly meals with beans, and even healthy pizza recipes.

“It’s mostly skill building,” Wehrle says. “It's not only good health attainment, but also practical hands-on skills and tools to integrate into your daily life.”

The program is designed for service organizations, community groups, or churches to apply for grants from HEAL, so they can host their own cooking classes. Then HEAL provides the training materials, supplies, and cookbooks for everyone who attends.

Since the program got going with three pilot classes in 2015, it has been substantially growing. The number of classes in 2016 jumped to 29, and then 35 in 2017.

Dwire says feedback from the courses indicates that numbers are likely to keep increasing as word of mouth spreads. The comments she hears when she drops in on classes or farmers markets are encouraging, too.

"What I hear all the time is 'Bless you; bless your organization for helping us out,'" Dwire says. "It's very moving.... Then November comes, and it breaks my heart."

Dwire says participants often develop a community over the course of the Our HEALing Kitchen class sessions.

While HEAL and Our HEALing Kitchen effectively serve residents during market seasons in the summer and fall, participants are left to fend for themselves again in winter months.

That’s where the need for a year-round, indoor market comes into play, and one of the ways it’s taking shape is in the form of a long-awaited downtown grocery store in Fort Wayne.

A permanent, year-round location

Brightpoint is a service agency for low-income residents in 15 northeast Indiana counties. Its office is located at the heart of this service area in downtown Fort Wayne, where approximately 18.9 percent of 250,000 residents are living below the poverty level.

In 2014, 19,840 households in Fort Wayne received food stamps, lining up at Brightpoint's service windows inside 227 E. Washington Blvd., to manage their benefits. 

And of those households represented—those adults standing in line—57.8 percent have children under the age of 18.

Each year, Brightpoint conducts a needs assessment to better serve its clientele, and when they conducted that survey in 2015-2016, food insecurity rose to the top of the list as the most pressing concern.

So working with HEAL, Brightpoint started hosting Our HEALing Kitchen classes downtown and at five multi-family housing developments around the region.

It also started brainstorming a long-term solution to the issue for its clients, and after extensive research, its employees came up with the idea to create a downtown Fort Wayne grocery store.

“Bringing it home that downtown is a food desert, it affects everybody, rich and poor," says Andrew Applegate, a research assistant at Brightpoint. "Our HEALing Kitchen only happens a few times every year, but this could be a year-round location for it."

At the end of each Our HEALing Kitchen program, participants share a community meal.

Dwire is a former board member and current committee member for Brightpoint, so she is working with the organization to develop plans for a grocery store that could benefit people of all types in Allen County.

Since low-income residents already need to come downtown to access Brightpoint’s services, if they had a grocery store there, they could knock out two things in one trip. And as people who work downtown, Brightpoint’s employees see the need for a grocery store, too.

Better yet, having a healthy, urban market in a central location could help reduce cultural barriers in the county by having people of all income levels shop together.

"We say to people all the time that we want everybody rubbing shoulders," says Sherry Early-Aden, Vice President of Operations at Brightpoint. "We think there’s a lot of opportunity here."

Shoppers gather produce at McCormick Place.

But despite the allure of a downtown grocery store, the concept is not entirely new.

Similar ideas have been attempted before at locations like the Lamplight Inn, and projects have never gotten off the ground for reasons that vary from not enough room for delivery trucks to not enough nearby residents to make a grocery sustainable.

Even so, Applegate is optimistic that Brightpoint’s plans might beat the odds by relying heavily on the organization's nonprofit status to create a nonprofit store, as well.

That said, Early-Aden explains that just because it might be a nonprofit grocery doesn't mean it's going to be a food pantry.

Instead, she and others at Brightpoint envision a shopping experience similar to what residents currently find at places like Fresh Thyme Farmers Market on the north side. It's all part of a philosophy Early-Aden likes to call "no dented cans."

While the future market would stock items in multiple price ranges, it would be affordable for low-income residents by incorporating food stamp benefits similar to those offered by HEAL.

Dwire is working with Applegate and others to advise on the plan, and discuss potentially incorporating the Our HEALing Kitchen programs directly into the market, too, where they could serve residents of all types with healthy cooking classes.

If Brightpoint's plans pan out, eating healthy might be a choice more people living and working in Fort Wayne get to make.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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