SOUTH BEND, Indiana (WNDU) – As many of us gear up for the holidays, some here in Michiana don’t have food on the table. And it’s not just the affordability of meals that’s the problem, it’s access.
The Food Bank of Northern Indiana tells 16 News Now Investigates that hunger is on the rise.
“St. Joe County is currently 36% more in need,” said Brandy Love, Director of Agency Relations.
It’s also becoming increasingly difficult to find places to buy affordable, healthy meals.
“The days of the neighborhood grocery store are gone,” said Marijo Martinec, CEO and executive director of the Food Bank of Northern Indiana.
This lack of grocery stores in some neighborhoods leads to food deserts. A food desert is an area where a significant number of residents do not have easy access to affordable or quality fresh food.
Census data has identified 11 areas of St. Joseph County where a significant number of people live more than a mile from the nearest convenience store.
“Our last food desert is gone from Portage because old Martin’s is gone. Now they’ve turned off CVS,” explains Brandy Love.
Robin Vida of the St. Joseph County Health Department agrees the area is a food desert.
“Their closest grocer will be either Meijer or Walmart or Aldi, which is clearly quite a long way from where they live,” she adds.
Researchers from the University of Notre Dame are studying this particular region as part of a three-year study in hopes of developing an app that may address some of the food access issues faced by people living in food deserts. They’ve met with residents of the nearby Northwest side of South Bend who shared concerns about the quality of the food they’re bringing home.
“Even if it’s a well-known grocer that has multiple locations, those that are nearby and accessible still have quality differences,” says Ron Metoyer, associate dean at Notre Dame’s College of Engineering.
“You can still be a big brand, but they’re not all the same, even if they still have the same showcase name,” adds Ann-Marie Conrado, associate professor of industrial design at the university. “It’s important to understand that there are these systemic differences that make it challenging.”
The St. Joseph County Health Department says items like french fries and soda are often more readily available than fresh fruits and vegetables.
“They’re a food swamp with fast food restaurants or convenience stores or things like that that are really close together. So you’re marketing a very unhealthy, low-quality food to low-income and certain demographics,” says Robin Vida. “That’s how the developers plan.”
This and reliance on non-perishable items can cause or worsen health problems.
“Whether diabetes or high blood pressure and so on. So it’s important that they have access to healthy foods to help them manage these conditions,” says Metoyer.
“If someone is already struggling to get there, they might only be able to go there once a week or every two weeks. So there’s going to be a greater reliance on processed foods and canned foods, which we know are high in sodium, adding all sorts of other problems,” Conrado adds.
So how can we break the cycle – and ensure that nutritious food is available to all?
“One potential solution would be to look into rezoning or zoning laws. How can you prevent these fast food goods from coming in. Or say there can be two and one grocery stores for every mile,” explains Vida.
A South Bend neighborhood is doing just that. When a new gas station was proposed for the 2700 block of Lincoln Way West, the Lincoln-Bendix Park Neighborhood Association got involved. They agreed to support the business proposal if the broadcaster agrees to open a grocery store with “a stock of basic necessities, including some healthy foods, e.g. g. delicatessen, vegetables, milk, bread and fruit”. That makes it a potential resource for the community.
But the struggle continues for those who still live in a food desert.
“You can’t think critically when you’re hungry. You cannot deal with conflict constructively when you are hungry. And more importantly, you can’t be healthy when you’re hungry,” says Robin Vida.
“If you live in an area where you might not have access to transport, it’s a challenge and there’s a pantry there, I mean people depend on that as a resource for them,” adds Marijo Martinec.
That’s where Reverend Donna Waller comes in. She runs a pantry at Laymen Chapel CME Church in an area of South Bend with little access to food.
“These people are hungry, they are in our area, they expect us to help them in some way and we do. We’re doing what we can,” she says.
Rev. Waller tells us that the need in our community has increased to the point of providing food to people outside of normal pantry hours. Families are looking for help from the pantry, among other things.
“We feed 5, 6, 7 babies including mom. Because the majority of our mothers are single parents. So we’re going to feed them,” Waller explains.
Her passion for helping others is evident.
“You’re letting them know, hey, maybe someday you’ll be the one to help another person. You pass it on,” she says. “You know, just because they have to go to the food bank to get something to eat doesn’t make them bad people. Don’t make them evildoers. They just got into a bad situation that a whole lot of people got into.”
It’s a feeling that runs strongly through Michiana and is even documented by Notre Dame researchers.
“The community spirit is alive. Even in these areas that we call food deserts, and they’re working together to try to overcome many of these barriers,” says Ann-Marie Conrado.
This comes at a time when any of us could soon be in need of help.
“There are many people who are just a paycheck away from being a family that needs help accessing food,” adds Ron Metoyer.
The Food Bank of Northern Indiana says the need is great in our community.
“We get better when people get fed,” says their CEO and executive director. “You will be able to be more productive members of our communities and we will be able to do more.”
Anyone interested in helping can donate to the Food Bank of Northern Indiana. 94 cents of every dollar donated goes back into the community. Learn more about donating or volunteering at FeedIndiana.Org.
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