Fort Wayne families are adding more fruits and vegetables to their diets thanks to HEAL Markets

Fort Wayne HEAL Markets are largely the reason one single mother is able to provide healthy food options for her three children.

Miriam Godinez, who says she participated in the Women, Infants, & Children (WIC) nutrition program for 7 years, regularly attends one of three weekly HEAL Markets with her children, who are ages 2, 5, and 6.

“We love being able to take the kids there,” Godinez says. “They love talking to the farmers and getting to learn about the fruits and vegetables. We let them pick something new every time we go. It’s just a fun experience to watch them learn about it.”

Shoppers explore the local produce offerings at the HEAL Market at HEAL MARKET Double up McCormick Place Apartments.

HEAL Markets, which happen weekly in food deserts, aren’t your typical farmers markets. Instead, the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, Parkview Health, and HealthVisions Midwest of Fort Wayne are using these markets to combat food disparities in Fort Wayne.

Anyone can shop at the HEAL Markets, and all of the produce is affordable and locally grown. Customers can use cash or credit cards to shop, but what makes these markets unique is that they all accept WIC or SNAP (formerly food stamps) payments, and with support from the St. Joe Foundation, Parkview Health, and United Way of Allen County, these markets allow customers to double their buying power.

The WIC vouchers are matched dollar-for-dollar with private funding, and SNAP purchases are matched dollar-for-dollar through Double Up Indiana, a program of the St. Joseph Community Foundation, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“The families are able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables that they wouldn’t be able to afford if the program didn’t exist,” says Sharon Tubbs of HealthVisions Midwest of Fort Wayne. “It doubles their buying power and highlights the need to eat fresh vegetables and fruit.”

There are three HEAL Markets in Fort Wayne throughout the week.

There has been a huge problem in Fort Wayne with food deserts, Tubbs says. A food desert is defined as an area where there is low access to nutritious foods that also has a high rate of poverty. According to Tubbs, food deserts are a result of economic and social trends that have taken place over the years as larger chains have pushed out smaller, neighborhood grocers.

Godinez lives in South East Fort Wayne, where many parts of the 46803 and 46806 zip codes are considered food deserts. In Allen County, approximately 48,900 residents identified as food insecure (13.3 percent) even before the pandemic, and of those, approximately 17.2 percent were children under the age of 18.

According to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the health of a community is driven by the environment and zip code.

“I live in 46806 zip, so I have closer access to Kroger or Walmart,” says Godinez. “Further east, there are not many options. They have to drive 25 to 30 minutes one direction or another.”

A volunteer, Felician, welcomes guests at the HEAL Market at McCormick Place Apartments.

Access to healthy foods became increasingly challenging for Fort Wayne families amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We saw more of a need last year,” says Tiann Aughinbaugh, who is the WIC Director at Neighborhood Health Clinics. “Our caseload grew to more than 1,000 over the last year. People were laid off from jobs or couldn’t go to work and lost their jobs because of remote learning.”

St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, in partnership with Parkview, hosted the first HEAL Market in 2014. In recent years, the local WIC program also began distributing special farm produce vouchers to new parents on their caseloads at the HEAL Farm Markets to make it easier for them to connect with growers of local produce.

“We know that roughly half of the moms who give birth in this community are single moms, and that many have very limited incomes,” says Meg Distler, Executive Director of the St. Joe Foundation. “We want to make sure those new families have great support in the community. Making nutrition affordable and easily accessible is a big part of that. Matching dollar-for-dollar their WIC and SNAP produce purchases is one strategy to help those new families.”

Meg Distler, right, poses with a volunteer at the HEAL Market at McCormick Place Apartments.

Since then, the effort has grown with the partnership of more local organizations, as well as the Double Up program, and statistics show the program is changing health outcomes in Northeast Indiana. Dr. Sarah GiaQuinta, M.D., of Parkview Health says 80 percent of HEAL marketgoers who were surveyed in 2019 showed an increase in fruit and vegetable intake.

“The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the healthier you’re going to be,” she says. “It’s the key in preventing and controlling chronic disease that we see in our communities. In areas where there are higher rates of poverty, we have higher rates of chronic disease.”

Shoppers purchase locally grown tomatoes at the HEAL Market at McCormick Place Apartments.

Godinez now works in the WIC office, helping other single parents. She believes HEAL Markets are key to helping low-income families buy more nutritious foods. They also give families the opportunity to learn about healthy foods and how to cook them.

“The HEAL Market is already pretty affordable, but with the vouchers, it makes it more feasible for people to provide other options for their children and their families,” she says.

Fort Wayne HEAL Markets are open every week during the summer market season.

While nutrition is an important part of the HEAL Markets, each community partner believes the effort is also about dignity. It’s about providing the same opportunities and access to all members of Fort Wayne’s community.

“If you give opportunity and access, it’s not that difficult to get people onboard with having a healthier diet,” says GiaQuinta.

Learn more
Fort Wayne HEAL Markets are open every week during the summer market season at the following times and locations.

5-7 p.m. Wednesdays
McCormick Place Apartments
3005 McCormick Ave.

4-6 p.m. Thursdays
Parkview Greenhouse
1716 Beacon St.

8 a.m.-12 p.m. Saturdays
Southside Market
3300 Warsaw St.

To learn more, visit St. Joseph Community Health Foundation’s website, Double Up Indiana’s Facebook page,  Double Up Indiana’s website, and follow HEAL Markets on Facebook.

This story is part of a series about healthy eating disparities and solutions in Northeast Indiana. It is made possible with funding from the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation.