SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — It is a lonely, but familiar start to the Urban Garden Farmer’s Market’s final day of the season in late October.
A half hour passes before the first customer strolls into the industrial building smack in the middle of the city’s west side, just south of Kennedy Park, where a handful of local growers and vendors load their tables with autumn’s bounty.
A woman and her granddaughter look at pumpkins on this mild Saturday. The vendors here are pioneers who carry a persistent belief that they can break through the challenges of this “food desert.”
They aren’t alone. The separate nonprofit group Unity Gardens is raising money to erect a building after eight years of working outdoors in dozens of neighborhood gardens. A lesser-known grocery store, IRBN, sells low-cost food without seeking a profit. And the St. Joseph County Health Department has begun a conversation to answer: How can the community bring fresh and low-cost food to low-income neighborhoods where it’s a long, long walk to a decent grocery store?
“The face of hunger in Michiana is not what you think,” says Sara Stewart, founder of Unity Gardens. “A lot of times people in poverty have a home, but they do without a meal. So they look OK.”
The Urban Garden Farmer’s Market has tried three locations since it began in 2008. Vendors have had to bail out because, for all the hours they invested, they couldn’t sustain themselves.
Current vendors agree: They need a spark, or marketing, or something that will help it draw more local farmers and customers. But they are on a grass-roots budget, with vendors who pay just $5 to set up a table.
The market can be tricky to find. Several signs in the neighborhood list its address, 2721 Kenwood Ave., but it really could use arrow signs that point the way as customers have to look for an opening along the building’s brick exterior.
Karen Haun, a vendor who co-owns Bendix Coffee and serves on the market’s marketing committee, says the space was an easy solution. The building is owned by her husband’s company, Curtis Products, and it provides shelter from the elements and very modest rent.
But now she says organizers are exploring an invitation to set up the Saturdays-only market at the Near Northwest Neighborhood’s center, 1007 Portage Ave. It isn’t in a food desert, given the Martin’s Super Market just a few blocks down Portage, but it promises better access to a mix of income levels, including the needy, she says. Besides, the NNN’s successful Local Cup coffee shop already draws visitors on weekends.
If it can’t work there, Haun says, they may have to give up on the market. It has been busy when paired up with special events, and Haun wonders if more farmers would give it a try if there was a grant to subsidize them.
Eugene Baughman, of Pa’s Vegetable Patch, who’s been a vendor at the market since its beginning, would like to see the market start taking orders over the internet so vendors could make deliveries, allowing the market to keep going year-round. He thinks it may reach low-income folks since “everyone’s got a cellphone.”
Haun says the market needs to be successful first.
In June, the county health department formed a “food access committee” to get to the bottom of the issue, then suggest solutions, partly by supporting local agriculture. It’s early in the process for the 50 key players — invited from businesses, schools, health care, charities and city administration — but some things are already clear, says the coordinator, Robin Vida, the department’s director of health education.
A lot of folks just don’t have the money to buy food, Vida says. And people may not know what to do with certain garden vegetables, she says. Or they may lack a lid for a pot.
Moms may find it a hassle to organize a trip to a good grocery store by bus when they’re taking kids, so, she adds, “They find food elsewhere.”
In 2017, she says, her department will kick off a Let’s Cook program where participants will learn basic cooking skills — emphasizing fresh ingredients.
To help the committee’s work, a class of students at the University of Notre Dame has plotted a map with grocery stores, food pantries, restaurants and liquor stores along with schools and parks. It’s a lot of clutter for the eyes, Vida admits, but they’ve begun using it to prioritize and study census tracts with the greatest areas of need.
Two years after it opened, the IRBN discount grocery store still amazes people who discover that it’s even there along the throb of car traffic at 2115 W. Western Ave., just beyond Bill’s Restaurant. That includes several customers who walk or ride bikes or wheelchairs here because they lack cars — along with customers who fill up the store more often after the first of the month, when their government checks arrive, says company President Dane Vida (no relation to Robin Vida).
Dane Vida passionately talks up the deals customers find along the neatly ordered shelves — Red Gold ketchup at two for $1.99, hats and mittens for $1 — but not because he wants to make a profit. He’d rather just break even in the market, which he says he does. IRBN draws its real income from its warehouse and food distribution to meet the needs of food banks around the Midwest. The store is his way to give back — and fill a need.
Along neat shelves of nonperishable items, there are a few small pockets of fresh or frozen items. A square display sells produce that a supplier brings from Chicago: apples, oranges and grapefruit at 15 cents each, potatoes at 19 cents per pound, onions at 22 cents per pound and squash at 50 cents each. In one corner, a cooler sells eggs for 65 cents per dozen, plus an array of sausages and hams. A freezer offers a 5-pound bag of breaded, frozen chicken for $2.50.
IRBN aims to sell the goods at 50 to 70 percent less than the major retail stores, where, he says, “Their overhead is a lot different than mine.”
IRBN doesn’t sell items like milk and bread that have such a short shelf life that it’s impossible to offer a discount.
The grocer can afford the low prices by buying goods at wholesale and by picking up personal care items and vitamins that, while still ahead of their expiration date, national drug stores have decided they couldn’t sell in time.
Looking across Western toward a dense neighborhood of modest homes, Vida describes its residents: “They’re hardworking people. When you pay the basic needs, there’s not much left for food.”
The community needs more outlets with affordable basic food, he says, noting that IRBN has tinkered with the idea of opening another store in areas like Portage Avenue, Miami Street and Mayflower Road.
The key, as the nonprofit Unity Gardens found, may be in forging relationships.
It had started in 2008 with explosive growth, eventually dotting the urban neighborhoods with as many as 58 gardens. Anyone could harvest for free. It was a puzzling new concept. At first, garden manager Mitch Yaciw observes, people used to drive past the gardens, looking but not stopping. Somehow the food would be taken by day’s end — he can only guess people would cultivate when volunteers weren’t around.
“People are understanding it now,” says founder Sara Stewart, who’s made this a full-time effort.
The number of gardens has receded to 40, she says, after the sponsoring groups sobered up to the hard work that’s required.
In 2016, it began a series of seven potluck meals at the Beacon Heights subsidized apartments, directly across from its main garden on Ardmore, drawing 50 to 70 people at a time and letting the garden crews get to know the kids, Stewart says. Using a grant from Memorial Hospital, the meals brought in a chef to do cooking demonstrations with the garden’s vegetables. They did “weed walks” to show which wild-growing plants could be harvested and eaten.
“We’re starting to earn a lot of their trust,” she says.
Also in 2016, Unity Gardens started posting “garden guides” at its main site for four hours in the evening to help visitors to harvest without harming plants. The guides also counted visitors, finding 260 people on the busiest week.
Now Unity Gardens is trying to raise $400,000 to build a Community Learning Center at its main site on Ardmore, to shelter a weekly market for its products and indoor space for classrooms, kids camps and growing projects. It has raised $117,000 thus far.
The free food for neighbors will continue to be a priority, Stewart says. So, too, will the Unity Gardens’ successful stall at the South Bend Farmer’s Market, where it sells its produce, honey and beeswax products as a way to support its operations.
When Unity Gardens started, Yaciw says: “I thought, ‘that’s cute, but it’s not going to do a lot.’ Now I see hundreds of people filing through these gardens.”
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