By Mark Burkholder
When Gonzalee Martin and Laura Dwire joined forces in 2014, neither one imagined the impact that an urban garden and a handful of farm markets would have on Allen County. But today, five years later, their efforts are enabling more than 1,200 families to put nutritious food on their dinner tables and live healthier lives.
Martin and Dwire oversee HEAL Farm Markets, a venture co-sponsored by the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation and Parkview Health.
During summer months, the duo and their helpers scramble to set up tents, tables, chairs, and cashier stations for weekly pop-up markets. The result is a steady flow of customers who leave with bags of low-cost plums, tomatoes, cabbage, squash, corn, and other fresh produce — often locally grown in northeast Indiana.
Despite the work — not to mention the heat — Martin and Dwire say the rewards of running HEAL Farm Markets are worth it. HEAL, which stands for Healthy Eating Active Living, operates markets in food deserts across Fort Wayne, or areas that have low access to healthy food or grocery stores.
Early data shows the markets are already stirring subtle changes in the community. In 2018, 81 percent of patrons who participated in onsite surveys ate more fresh produce after the markets opened, according to the St. Joseph foundation. Also, 80 percent of those surveyed said the markets increased their hope in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Working on the HEAL program has been the most meaningful work I have ever performed,” says Dwire, St. Joseph foundation’s community programs manager, who oversees market operations. “Seeing the gratefulness of our market customers and hearing their stories is transforming.”
The St. Joseph foundation has sponsored a series of urban farming projects for more than a decade, but HEAL markets are the agency’s latest endeavor. Martin was an easy choice to manage the agricultural side of the program. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural economics and is now a retired agricultural educator for Allen County Purdue Extension.
About 20 years ago, Martin started Growth in Agriculture Through Education, a program that exposes youth to the business side of farming.
GATE teens now help pick crops at Martin’s urban garden on Slataper Street. Then they sell the vegetables and fruits providing the majority of the produce at HEAL markets near McCormick Place Apartments, Parkview Health Greenhouse and Trinity English Lutheran Church. Other farmers partner with Martin and HEAL at these markets and at the South Side Market.
“HEAL has kept my mission alive to educate youth about farming and to serve the community through agriculture,” Martin says.
The Northeast Indiana Farmers Market Guide lists about two dozen farm markets and farm stands. But HEAL’s four locations stand apart, largely due to their low prices and special “double-up” program.
This program allows HEAL to double the value of purchases for people in the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and those using produce vouchers issued through the state’s Women, Infants, and Children program or Aging and In-Home Services.
Research shows that this economic boost is necessary to give more people access to nutritious food.
A Vulnerable Populations Study in 2018 revealed that 110,000 people — roughly one-third of Allen County’s population — live in food deserts. The research was commissioned by the St. Joseph foundation and conducted by Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Community Research Institute. The study detailed the extent of economic and transportation barriers that keep people from eating healthy.
Some patrons have also expressed their gratitude.
“Shopping at your market and getting double the voucher has made a big impact on my life,” wrote Meredith Ashe, a senior on a fixed income, in a note. “There wasn’t any money this month for fresh fruit and vegetables. Thanks to your program, I now have them.”
And consumers aren’t the only ones who benefit from HEAL markets. Jack and Ann DeGrandchamp are among the farmers who participate in HEAL’s double-up system, selling their produce at the South Side Market. While the location is not a weekly pop-up, HEAL cashiers manage the double-up system there, too, allowing customers to walk away with twice as much food, while the matching program pays farmers for the added produce.
“It seems like a win-win situation for everybody,” Jack says. “We can plant more. We can bring more. We can sell more.”
Dwire steers HEAL’s partnership with area farmers. She came aboard after successfully working on other community projects with the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation.
“I was hesitant at first,” she says. “I grew up in the city and had very little knowledge of agriculture.”
Now Dwire is a certified Market Master, a member of the Food Council of Northeast Indiana, and a member of the Community Harvest Food Bank AG Committee. The experience has taught her much.
“I knew how to feed people after seven years on the board for Community Harvest,” she says. “But I didn’t know how to nurture people by addressing barriers and giving access to healthy foods. Now, I have that opportunity every day.”
The markets will resume this year during the second week of July, when local summer crops are available.
Mark Burkholder is the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation multimedia coordinator.
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