With food insecurity an issue, some organizations try to help - July 25, 2018

Courtesy of The Post Tribune

Written by Cain Buchmeier

For the past five years, Methodist Hospitals Northlake have been helping to provide Gary residents with access to fresh, affordable food through a series of farmer’s markets.

“Recognizing that many residents of Gary and surrounding areas have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, a farmer’s market seemed to be a logical and valuable program that we could offer to our neighbors,” Linda Hadley, marketing director for Methodist Hospitals, said.

The offering of farmer’s markets was the result of a 2013 Community Healthy Needs Assessment, which indicated that diet, nutrition and obesity were among the major health issues facing the community, according to Hadley.

“(These) are drivers of some of the major conditions that are prevalent in our region, e.g., diabetes, heart disease and stroke,” Hadley said.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Northwest Indiana is home to 37 food deserts. Lake County makes up the bulk of that figure with 25, while LaPorte County has eight, Porter County three, Jasper County one and Newton County none. There are 17 food deserts in Gary alone, according to the USDA.

Theresa Mince, community wellness director for the Purdue Extension in Crown Point, said while there is a large concentration of food deserts in Northwest Indiana, there are many organizations trying to help those living within them.

“I think (farmer’s markets) are a great start, they’re definitely needed. There are not a lot of farmer’s markets in the area we work in, but there are a lot of food pantries that try to address that,” Mince said.

The USDA defines a food desert as an area with “at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.”

“In a lot of those areas there are not a lot of grocery stores. You’ll find more dollar stores, convenience stores and it’s generally more expensive and you won’t find that wide range that others have access to,” Mince said. “Poor nutrition is linked to a lot of chronic diseases. You can teach people all day to eat fresh fruits and vegetables but if they don’t have access to them, then they can’t. So if we don’t zoom out and look at the big picture we won’t be able to make changes in food deserts.”

In addition to farmer’s markets and food pantries, Mince said the Senior Farmers’ Nutrition Program offers vouchers that allow eligible seniors to exchange them for fresh produce. Mince also noted a program called Broadway Metro Markets, which according to the program’s flyer “provides fresh produce choices to citizens and riders by organizing farmers’ markets near Broadway Metro Express stops.”

“There are definitely a lot of organizations looking to help out and find ways that are most effective in getting it to the people who need it,” Mince said.

While Methodist Hospital’s farmer’s markets provide a much needed service to Gary residents, the food sold at their markets are sourced from supplier US Foods, as opposed to local farmers, according to Evelyn Morrison, marketing and corporate communications manager for Methodist.

Hadley said in addition to offering fresh, affordable food, Methodist Hospitals also wanted to provide the community with practical information and education about healthy cooking and how to work fresh foods into their diets.

“Some of the ways we provide that include giving out recipe cards at the farmer’s markets, conducting healthy cooking demonstrations as part of heart month activities at our campuses, healthy cooking and eating events for seniors at the Gary YWCA, presentations to food pantry staff and diabetes prevention programs for community members,” Hadley said.

A new Community Health Needs Assessment, which the IRS requires non-profit hospitals to conduct every three years, is in the works, which Hadley said is looking for new ways to help expand the reach of Methodist Hospital’s food and nutrition programs.

“It will really require the efforts of many organizations, both public and private, to eliminate food deserts in Northwest Indiana,” Hadley said.

The farmer’s markets will be available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 27, Aug. 17, Aug. 31 and Sept. 21 at the Methodist Hospital Northlake Campus in Gary, located in the parking lot directly across from the Administration Building and next to McDonald’s.