Fighting food insecurity: How St. Joseph Community Health Foundation is leading the community effort

This story was made possible by support from the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation.
Approximately 14 percent of people in Allen County, including nearly 20,000 children, are considered food insecure. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.” Families that struggle with food insecurity must often make difficult choices when it comes to necessary expenses, leaving them without enough money for sufficient food.

Mary Tyndall“Food insecurity doesn’t look like you might expect,” says Mary Tyndall, communications and food programs director at St. Joseph Community Health Foundation (SJCHF). “The person in the cubicle next to you or the student sitting behind you in class could be food-insecure. Maybe they paid their rent and their car payment this month, but there’s not enough left to buy healthy groceries to feed the family. That’s when people have to visit pantries and food banks.”

Since 1998, when the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ sold the St. Joseph Medical Center, SJCHF has been stewarding proceeds to advance programs, projects and partnerships that support people who struggle to meet basic needs. For nearly ten years, SJCHF has placed a particular focus on addressing nutrition and food insecurity in the community.

“When we started working on initiatives involving food insecurity, we quickly moved into nutrition insecurity because we realized that a lot of people are not getting quality calories,” says Meg Distler, executive director of SJCHF. “You can buy a bag of carrots for about the same price as a bag of potato chips—but you don’t get the same nutritional value. A lot of our work in the area of food insecurity involves making sure people have access to high-quality, nutrient-dense foods.”

Maria Krach is a registered dietitian who works in private practice, but she serves on the SJCHF board to provide insight into initiatives that support nutrition and healthy lifestyles. 

“I love that SJCHF is hands-on in the community,” says Krach. “As part of my volunteer work with the Foundation, I’ve connected with several program directors at food banks and pantries to help them make changes to their donation request lists. People who seek donated items deserve the types of healthy items we buy and serve our own families.”

Mary Tyndall at the HEAL Market.Through people like Mary Tyndall, Meg Distler and Maria Krach, SJCHF has piloted programs and cultivated partnerships that have been invaluable to the community. The Foundation’s efforts, along with those of many other local leaders, are key to promoting healthy lifestyles for people with limited resources.

Facilitating access to nutritious food

For people dealing with food insecurity, healthy, nutrient-dense foods might seem inaccessible. They may be more expensive or have a shorter shelf life than canned, sugary items. To offset the financial burden, SJCHF received a grant from the USDA to enable matching incentives for people who use food stamps. Through the Double Up Indiana program, SNAP/EBT customers receive a dollar-for-dollar match for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables from participating vendors, up to $20 per day.

WIC Director Tianne Aughinbaugh at the market.“The Double Up benefits have really taken off in the past decade,” says Distler. “St. Joseph Community Health Foundation got the first grant for these matching programs in the state of Indiana. The Foundation’s work in piloting the program—with Mary’s leadership—has helped it gain momentum, and the Indiana Department of Health has asked us, along with the Marion County Health Department, to help get the program running state-wide. It’s in 38 counties now, and we’re working to expand it even more.”

Tyndall says there aren’t many organizations with the capacity to support the Double Up Indiana program on a state-wide scale, so having the support from the SJCHF board to be part of this has been a gift.

“We’re really honored to be part of such a rewarding project, supporting people all across the state who struggle to access nutritious food for their families,” she says.

Another benefit of the Double Up Indiana program is its focus on local produce. 

“Our primary Double Up vendors are in area farmers markets, which gives buyers access to food grown in our community—and supports local farmers by effectively doubling their sales,” says Tyndall. “There are several farmers markets all over Fort Wayne that participate in the program, which makes affordable produce even more accessible. Recent data has shown us that the average Double Up participant eats more fruits and vegetables than the average American who has unlimited access to healthy food.”

The matching benefits available through the Double Up Indiana program only apply to those who qualify for SNAP/EBT—not seniors or WIC participants. To fill this WIC gap, SJCHF partnered with Parkview Health and several local leaders to launch Health Eating Active Living (HEAL) Markets in 2014.

“In talking with people in the community, we realized that a lot of WIC produce vouchers, which are often worth as much as $30 or $50 in produce for pregnant women and their children up to their fifth birthday, were going unredeemed,” says Tyndall. “We hated to see that resource being wasted when it could be used to bring nutritious food to mothers, children and seniors in need.”

To encourage participants to redeem the vouchers, SJCHF partnered with several people in the community to incentivize them in a similar model to that of the Double Up Indiana Program.

Jered Blanchard with a farmer at the HEAL Market.“SJCHF partners with Parkview to facilitate HEAL Markets in food desert locations or places where there is limited access to affordable food,” says Tyndall. “A representative from the WIC office comes to every market and issues vouchers on-site, making it easy to get a voucher and immediately redeem it for produce. All the farmers at the HEAL markets are WIC-authorized, which makes these markets a simple, one-stop shop for securing a voucher and redeeming it. And, through the SJCHF and Parkview partnership, vouchers are matched dollar-for-dollar up to $20—just like in the Double Up Indiana Program.”

Although SJCHF and Parkview are the key sources of funding for the initiative, Tyndall and Distler credit the tireless work of community stakeholders in helping HEAL markets run smoothly. 

“This work would not be possible without Jered Blanchard with Allen County Purdue Extension, Tiann Aughinbaugh with the Allen County WIC office, Kelsie Owen with Aging & In-Home Services and Felicia Say with HealthVisions Midwest of Fort Wayne—which operates the HEAL markets,” says Tyndall. “They have been dedicated to advocating for this program, pushing to make it a reality, and testing it to iron out any roadblocks along the way.”

Uniting the community

Addressing food insecurity is no solitary effort, and as Tyndall connected with people in Fort Wayne who wanted to help, she saw the possibility for a more united front. 

“I talked to community leaders from several organizations who expressed interest in a more official gathering that could facilitate collaboration and support throughout the county,” says Tyndall. “As part of our work at the Foundation, we established the Allen County Food Insecurity Nutrition Network (FINN), and we started meeting in July of 2021. We started with representatives from key community players like Parkview and the Allen County Purdue Extension—but we quickly expanded to inviting anyone who addresses problems related to food insecurity.”

An Allen County Food Insecurity Nutrition Network (FINN) meeting.Today, Tyndall says there are about 50 people on the FINN email list, representing a variety of organizations in the community. Leaders from local pantries, food banks, city government and more have a seat at the table, working together to bridge gaps and share resources. Because of their various connections, they have a deeper understanding of the needs and gaps affecting local families—and they want to take a strategic approach to addressing food insecurity in the county.

“It’s easy to end up in a vacuum or a silo when you’re focused on a project you care about,” says Distler. “That’s why the Allen County FINN is so important for our community—it’s been great to see how everyone participates by making connections, encouraging each other and pooling resources to impact the community. They’re working together to strengthen food insecurity initiatives and infrastructure in Fort Wayne.”

Members of FINN have one main thing in common: They have seen the faces of food insecurity in person; they know what it looks like. 

Mary Tyndall speaks at an Allen County Food Insecurity Nutrition Network (FINN) meeting.“It’s so easy to lose sight of the struggles of individuals in our community—but that’s the most important piece of our work,” says Distler.

In Fort Wayne, food insecurity looks different for everyone. It could look like a woman waiting in line in extreme temperatures, carrying her baby on her hip, hoping to secure a voucher so she can buy fruits and vegetables. It could look like a grandmother who worked on her feet all day but still comes to a farmers market to wait in line because she wants to feed her grandkids fresh produce. Or it could look like a single dad who can’t make his food budget work for his three kids without a matching incentive.

For all these people, and for the thousands of others in Indiana who deal with food insecurity, a matching program is a lifeline to a healthy, sustainable diet—something everyone deserves. Together, SJCHF and members of FINN plan to create more innovative pathways to nutritious food. 

Learn more about SJCHF’s work involving food insecurity here.
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