Fort Wayne volunteers are distributing 1,400 boxes of fresh food on a weekly basis

On Friday night, hundreds of residents gathered in downtown Fort Wayne to protest the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and racial injustice across the U.S.

The scene turned violent as police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

But on Saturday morning, a few residents rose early to make a difference in another way: Distributing 33,000 pounds of fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy products to their neighbors in need.



During the COVID-19 pandemic, food scarcity is one of the most pressing issues in Northeast Indiana.

For a few months now, Ty Simmons has been working with a coalition of partners to host free Curbside BBQ pickups in Southeast Fort Wayne, providing residents in a food desert with hot meals and COVID-19 supplies.

As Executive Director of the nonprofit Human Agricultural Cooperative, Simmons teaches young, urban farmers to grow fresh food and help curb the inequity of healthy food distribution in cities. He's one of the leading organizers behind the Utopian Community Grocery store at 608 Oxford St., as well.

Now, Simmons and his team are taking efforts to feed their neighbors to the next level.

“Our goal is to give our partners 1,400 boxes of fresh food to distribute throughout Fort Wayne every week,” he says.



Working with a coalition of local partners as well as a group of Black farmers from Evansville, Gary, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Louisville, Simmons's team is launching Free Food Giveaways throughout Fort Wayne. To make these events possible, they applied for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program designed to prevent food waste at farms by redirecting shipments from restaurants and large-scale food operations to people in need. 

The group’s request was granted on Monday, May 25, and by Saturday, May 30, the first weekly shipment of food boxes arrived in Fort Wayne by semi-truck. This will continue on a weekly basis into the foreseeable future, Simmons says, and his team is already writing grants to keep the effort going after the pandemic subsides.

Each food box contains about 20 pounds of strawberries, apples, cabbage, celery, onions, carrots, and potatoes.

Each food box contains 20 pounds of strawberries, apples, cabbage, celery, onions, carrots, and potatoes.

Some boxes have dairy products, too, and in the future, meat will be included, Simmons says. But right now, as meat processors across the U.S. scramble to keep up with demand during the pandemic, there is not enough to go around.

Along with feeding hungry people, the Free Food Giveaways are intended to support Black farmers during the pandemic, too, Simmons says. After all, only one percent of all farmers in the U.S. are Black, so his team is working to source food from as many of them as possible to fill the boxes.

But getting food shipments to Fort Wayne is only part of the challenge. Another part is distributing the food when it arrives.

***

Every Saturday, 1,400 boxes of fresh food will arrive in Fort Wayne at 7:30 a.m. for Simmons and his partners to distribute among their various networks.

The partners include Heartland Communities Inc., Faith United Methodist Church, Sweetwater, Come As You Are Community Church, the NAACP, HoJo Family Assistance, Courageous Healing, Inc., Joshua’s Hand, and Adams Township Trustees Office/Girlz Rock.

Since the nonprofit Heartland Communities Inc. runs Ploughshares Cooperative Food Hub, which already distributes food, they offered up their loading dock at the Community Harvest Food Bank on Coliseum Boulevard to support the weekly Free Food Giveaways.

All community volunteers have to do is show up and move boxes.

When volunteers Reggie Goins and his father first arrived on Saturday morning, Goins thought they were going to be the only ones there.

Waking up early on the weekend is no easy task for the recent Wayne High School graduate, especially after witnessing the protests the night before. This fall, he’s going to film school at Ball State University, but for now, he’s helping his dad give back in Fort Wayne, and before long, about 20 other volunteers joined them.

“I was surprised so many people came out,” Goins says.


As soon as the volunteers arrive, they mask up and get to work, unloading boxes from the long semi, stacking them on pallets, and reloading them into smaller distribution trucks operated by Simmons’s various partners.

Residents don’t have to live in a food desert to receive a box, Simmons says. Instead, his partners are distributing 900 boxes across the city’s various zip codes. Then, he’s distributing the remaining 500 boxes at the Utopian Community Grocery in Southeast Fort Wayne on a first-come, first-served basis.

While Utopian isn’t open yet, it’s already selling memberships and doing work in the community. Once complete, it will offer a fresh food hub for Southeast residents as well as a business incubator, Simmons says. This week, his Facebook fundraiser to purchase a $5,000 refrigerated truck for the store exceeded its goal.

His efforts to bring fresh food to the Southeast quadrant are attracting the attention of other young volunteers wanting to support progress in the neighborhood, too.

Roommates Kiersten Gamby and Courtney Steele live in Southeast Fort Wayne, and when they heard about Simmons’s work through the COVID-19 relief Facebook group Fort Wayne Comes Together Now!, they came out on Saturday morning to pitch in.

“We’ve already bought a membership to the Utopian Community Grocery,” Gamby says. “We are all about the community in Southeast, and we feel that it’s really important to support local business.”

The distribution site at 608 Oxford St. will be the site of the new Utopian Community Grocery store.

Other volunteers, like Goins’s father, Gary Arrington, have simply known Simmons for a long time and want to support his boots-on-the-ground approach to activism in the city.

A former professional basketball player in Fort Wayne and overseas, Arrington met Simmons while teaching him how to play ball.

“I trained him, and he ended up getting a college scholarship and everything out in California,” Arrington says.

Now, he’s following the lead of his former student by taking action to make Fort Wayne a better place rather than talking about what needs to change.

“A lot of people know there are people starving here and talk about it, but I try to get with people who are doing something about it,” Arrington says. “You got protests that are going on now. There are a lot of people who talk about what needs to be done, but Ty is a person who is doing it. You can protest the injustice, but if you don’t show up to feed the hungry, it doesn’t matter. You can’t pick and choose your battles when it’s humanity. You’ve got to show up for it all.”

Speaking of showing up, among the first volunteers to arrive on the scene Saturday morning was Fort Wayne City Councilwoman, At-Large, Michelle Chambers.

Chambers was leaving her office in downtown Fort Wayne on Friday night when she saw the protests begin. She was heartbroken later that evening when she heard that things turned violent.

In response to the situation, a Facebook Livestream event she moderates every week on Thursdays called “Women Who Lead Faithfully” will be focused on community prayer and discussion this week. Chambers thinks it’s important that community leaders show up to support their neighbors during this challenging time, too.

“Anytime we can get fresh food to our neighbors and be an advocate for them, I’m there,” she says. “Positive energy is why I am here right now.”

***

Once volunteers unpacked the semi-truck full of food boxes, many of them made their way to Utopian Community Grocery at 11 a.m. to help direct traffic and distribute the boxes there.

They set up a curbside pickup, where volunteers like Maggie Lambert joined the effort, lining the street and loading boxes into peoples' cars.

Lambert says her daughter lives only a few blocks away from where Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, so the tragedy has been weighing heavily on her heart.

“I just felt like I had to find something to do that was useful,” she says.

As the distribution continued under the summer sun, a handful of volunteers started pulling out their phones and posting messages about it on social media, telling friends and neighbors to come get free food.

One man began weaving through the line of volunteers, holding up his phone on a Livestream and chanting encouragements to everyone listening.

“We got food down here on the corner of Oxford and Monroe Street,” he says. “This is how Fort Wayne do it. We all come together as one.”

Volunteer with the weekly Free Food Giveaways

Volunteers are needed to help unload and distribute food boxes in Fort Wayne.

From 7:30-10 a.m., volunteers will be working at 1010 N. Coliseum Blvd. to unload food boxes from a semi-truck into smaller trucks.

Then at 11 a.m., volunteers are needed at Utopian Community Grocery to distribute food boxes to the public at a curbside pickup.

Anyone interested in volunteering, donating, or offering a truck for distribution can reach out to Ty Simmons at [email protected].

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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