SOUTH BEND, Indiana (WNDU) — As many of us prepare to feast for the holidays, some here in Michiana don’t have food on the table. The problem is not only the affordability of the meals, it is the accessibility of them.
The Northern Indiana Food Bank tells 16 News Now that hunger is on the rise.
“St. Joe County is up 36% right now and needs it badly,” says agency relations manager Brandy Love.
Finding places to buy affordable, healthy meals is also getting more difficult.
“The days of the neighborhood grocery store, they’re not there anymore,” says Marigo Martinek, CEO and CEO of Food Bank of Northern Indiana.
This shortage of groceries in some neighborhoods leads to food deserts. A food desert is an area where a large population does not have easy access to fresh food that is affordable or of good quality.
Census data 1 1 identified areas in St. Joseph County where a large number of people lived more than 1 mile from the nearest supermarket.
“Our last food desert outside of Portage because the old Martin’s is gone. Now they’ve got CVS out,” Brandi Love explains.
Ruben Vida, of the St. Joseph County Health Department, agrees: This area is a food desert.
“The closest retail grocery store would be either Meijer, Walmart, or Aldi, which are obviously quite far from where they live,” she adds.
Researchers from the University of Notre Dame are looking into this specific region as part of a three-year study in hopes of developing an app that could potentially address some of the food access issues faced by those living in food deserts. They met residents of South Bend near the Northwest Side who shared their concerns about the quality of the food they bring home.
“Even when a well-known grocer may have multiple locations, there can still be differences in quality in the places near and accessible sometimes,” says Ron Metoyer, associate dean at Notre Dame’s College of Engineering.
“You can still be a big brand, but they’re not all created equal even if they still have the same kind of flagship name,” adds Ann Marie Conrado, associate professor of industrial design at the university. “It is important to understand that these disparities exist systemically which makes them difficult.”
The St. Joseph County Health Department says items like french fries and soda pop are often more available than fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a food quagmire with fast food restaurants or convenience stores or those things that are really close together. So they market very unhealthy, low-quality food to specific, low-income demographics,” says Robin Veda. “The developers plan that way.”
This, along with relying on non-perishable items, can lead to or exacerbate health problems.
Whether it is due to diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. So it’s important that they have access to healthy foods so they can manage these conditions,” says Metoyer.
“If someone is already having a hard time getting there, they might only be able to go there once a week, once every two weeks. So there will be more reliance on processed foods, canned goods, which we know are high in Sodium, which adds all kinds of other issues,” Conrado adds.
So how do we break the cycle – and make sure nutritious food is available to everyone?
One potential solution is to look into reorganization or zoning laws. How do you restrict access to these fast food items. Or say, there could be two stores and a grocery store for every one mile,” Vida explains.
A South Bend neighborhood does 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 station agreed to include a convenience store with “a stock of basic groceries, including some healthy food options, eg deli, vegetables, milk, bread and fruit”. This makes it a potential resource for the community.
But the struggle continues for those still living in the food desert.
“You can’t think critically when you’re hungry. You can’t handle conflict constructively when you’re hungry. And most importantly, you can’t be healthy if you’re hungry,” says Robin Veda.
“If you live in an area where you might not have access to transportation, it’s a challenge, and there’s a food pantry there, I mean, people rely on that as their resource,” adds Marigo Martinique.
This is where Pastor Donna Waller comes in. She runs a food pantry at Laymen Chapel CME in an area of South Bend with low access to food.
“These people are hungry, and they’re in our neighborhood, and they’re kind of looking to us to give them a helping hand, and we’re doing it. We’re doing what we can do,” she says.
Reverend Waller tells us that there is such an increase in need in our community that she is feeding people outside of the store’s normal hours. Families are among those seeking help from the store.
“We are feeding 5, 6, 7 children, including the mother. Because the majority of our mothers are single mothers. So we are going to feed them,” Waller explains.
Her passion for helping others is evident.
“You tell them that hey, at some point along the way you might have been the one helping someone else,” she says. “You know just because they need to go to the food bank to get something to eat, it doesn’t make them bad people. Don’t make them wrong. They just fell into a bad situation that a lot of people have fallen into.”
It’s a strong feeling across Michiana, and it’s been documented by Notre Dame researchers.
“The community spirit is alive and well. Even in these areas we call food deserts, they work together to try to overcome a lot of these barriers,” says Anne-Marie Conrado.
This comes at a time when any of us may soon find ourselves in need of some help.
“There are a lot of people just one paycheck away from being that family that needs help getting food,” Ron Mitoyer adds.
The Northern Indiana Food Bank says the need in our community is great.
“We’ll be better when people are fed,” says the CEO and CEO. “They will be able to be more productive members of our communities and we will be able to do more.”
Those who want to help can donate to the Northern Indiana Food Bank. 94 cents of every dollar donated goes back to the community. Learn more about donating or volunteering at FeedIndiana.Org.
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