Gary’s Local Growers Fight Food Deserts
By: Hilary Powell
August 8, 2014 — Gary, Ind. needs to do some growing.
“Gary just needs to come back to life,” says 71-year old Errol Heffner. He knows downtown Gary well because he moved here at the age of one.
“I would say 1944,” Heffner says. “We had Art and Goldbatt’s downtown, Sears, and Walgreens. It was just ideal to go. We could walk.”
But the streets once filled with shopping options are sparse. The block at 15th and Massachusetts, once boasting the John Stewart Settlement House — a 20th century safe haven for African American migrants working in steel mills — is now a place where fresh food is rarely found.
“This is a food desert,” says Alma White. She chairs the Christ United Methodist Church committee responsible for starting the Stewart House Urban Farm and Gardens. The garden began in 2012 to create more sustainable food options for the community.
“It’s bad when you don’t have a grocery store nearby because then some people, older, don’t have transportation, can’t travel, or transportation don’t go to certain areas,” says Ray Gullatt, director of food and nutritional services at Methodist Hospital. “And then for a grocery store, if you do take public transportation, you’re limited to what you can buy.”
That is one reason Gulllatt began a farmers market on the grounds of Methodist in July.
A 2012 study from the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Committee shows 20 Northwest Indiana areas meet the United States Department of Agriculture’s definition of a food desert — a place where fresh produce is scarce.
Heffner is trying to make a difference on his corner. As a trustee at Christ United, he volunteers to grow crops the Stewart House gardens, named after and placed in the same spot as his first Gary home.
“Although we don’t have the building here anymore, it’s still history,” he says.
“From a pastoral point of view, I think what the Stewart House once was for the African American community was bridge the gap,” says G Thomas Jones, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church.
He says the garden is befitting ground to benefit the community once more.
“It is hallowed ground,” Jones says. “The families that are members of Christ Church now, their ancestors came through Stewart House. Now we’re doing this gardening project. And it will serve still the community as it did before.”
White agrees they are slowly making progress.
“We had one of the people out here the other day who had just cut some cabbage and there was a young lady walking down and he asked her, ‘do you want some cabbage?’” she says, “ and then he gave them to them and then she says, ‘now what do I do with them?’ People need to know what to do with some of these veggies out here.”
“This is a pineapple,” a girl says, pointing to a fruit stand.
Across town at the new farmers market on the campus of Methodist Hospital, some young residents are getting an education in nutrition.
“So that they can learn that everything doesn’t’ come from a can,” says Darlene Terrell, a child care provider in Gary.”Actually, I grew up right here in this neighborhood.”
She says fresh produce is hard to find near her business.
“No, not fresh produce like this is not easy to get, you know,” she says.
The farmer’s market was her classroom today.
“We eat healthy snacks so when we get back we’re going to take these, the fruits and vegetables that they purchased, and we’re going to combine them and we’re going to wash them and we’re going to eat them for lunch,” Terrell says.
The NIRPC study shows Lake County, Ind. has higher food insecurity rates than both the state and nation, with 18 percent of residents being in food deserts.”
UDSA undersecretary Kevin Concannon says more farmers markets across the state are accepting supplemental nutrition assistance program, or snap, to fill a gap.
“Many SNAP recipients live in what are called sometimes food deserts,” he says. “ It has really two goals: One, it encourages people to buy fruits and vegetables locally grown – it’s less processed, and two it puts dollars back in those local economies in the form of farmers.”
USDA numbers show SNAP participants redeemed more than $21 million at farmers markets and directly from farmers last year.
“It does take a car to, to go to my grocery store,” says Gary resident Julia Sims. “There needs to be a place where people can just walk in and get healthy food.”
Local experts say the community has responded when given a chance to get fresh goods.
“We had over $3,000 worth of product, and we sold more than 75 percent of what we had last time,” Gullatt says.
“At the Stewart House, they farmed about four to ten acres of land,” White says of the former landmark. “People were able to get food from here. And this is what we are trying to capture in a small way.”
While tilling the soil, Heffner paused to consider if the ground is still reverent. “I believe so, yes,” he says.
NIRPC Northwest Indiana Local Food Study