Gardens, markets take bite out of NWI food deserts - July 31, 2015

Courtesy of The Post-Tribune

By Carole Carlson, Contact Reporter • Post-Tribune

July 31, 2015

Alma White bent gingerly over the sweet corn and secured its fencing. She’s also tended to a crop of sweet peas in a raised bed at the Stewart House Urban Farm & Gardens at 15th Avenue and Massachusetts Street in Gary.

“There’s no place around here where you can buy fresh vegetables,” said White, a member of the Christ United Methodist Church, which started the garden.

A 2012 study by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission labeled 20 places in the region as food deserts, citing limited access or a lack of grocery stores. About 17 percent of the area’s population was considered “food insecure,” meaning they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, the study found.

There are several community gardens like this one sprouting up in northwest Indiana in an effort to extend access to fresh produce to urban residents who can’t always drive to supermarkets.

“It’s a lack of access, not necessarily a lack of good produce,” said Denise Dillard, chief consultant for government and external affairs at Methodist Hospitals in Gary and Merrillville.

Methodist is now offering its own farmers market in Gary, following a community health needs assessment by the hospital. Dillard said the market has been a big success.

Often, urban residents without transportation have to rely on convenience stores that just offer hot dogs, processed food and potato chips. Not many carrots or broccoli stalks are available.

“Eating fresh food and vegetables can be a healthy way to keep up with a medical condition,” Methodist nutritionist Leelarani Chigurapati said.

She sees many patients at the hospital struggling with obesity and diabetes. “These are common problems you have with the population. We have to have more fresh produce markets, so they can incorporate it in their diet,” she said.

This marks the second year for the Methodist farmers market in Gary. The hospital held one Friday and will hold two more Aug. 14 and Aug. 28 at its Northlake parking lot in Gary.

The hospital also stations a chef at the market to demonstrate how to incorporate produce into healthy cooking. “It’s a matter of education,” Chigurapati said.

Dillard said agriculture was once part of the culture for older generations who came to the region. Cooking fresh, however, wasn’t always passed down.

“People who migrated here didn’t need permission to get an empty lot and plant a garden in the rich soil,” Dillard said. “Now, you’re not seeing it. Seniors are dying out. If people knew better, I think they would do better.”