Understanding Fort Wayne’s food deserts: where they are and what’s being done to shrink them

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Marsha Woods grew up going to all sorts of places around Fort Wayne for food.

As a mother of four kids, she visited farmer’s markets, Didier Brothers Meat Market on Pettit Avenue and Phil’s Market in the Renaissance Pointe neighborhood.

Before being demolished years ago, Phil’s Market was located near the intersection of Pontiac Street and South Anthony Boulevard

Those locations disappeared over time. The meat market relocated to Wells Street, and Phil’s Market was demolished years ago. As a result, access to quality food in her neighborhood became more difficult.

“Everything from my childhood’s mostly gone now,” Woods said. “Only thing we do have left is the Brownlee’s market across the street (near Oxford and Hanna Street). But they have limited items because it’s so slow. It’s not really moving much.”

Brown’s experience only scratches the surface on what southeastern Fort Wayne communities have had to grapple with when it comes to food insecurity and food deserts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers food deserts as low income areas that also have low access to nutritious food. According to the most recent data from 2019, several south and southeast Fort Wayne neighborhoods are considered food desert territory.

Areas highlighted in green are USDA designated food deserts, or areas considered low income and low access to nutritional food (Source: USDA Economic Research Service)

Not only are these neighborhoods considered low income areas, but people have to travel more than a mile just to find a place that offers nutritious food. That could be difficult for people who have a physical disability or don’t have proper means of transportation.

Food deserts affect anyone from adults to children, who could grow up eating fast food or junk food that is not good for their development. Meal service programs from groups like Fort Wayne Community Schools alleviate some of these concerns, but Joe Jordan from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Indiana knows they do not eliminate the entire problem.

“When children are not healthy, it’s tough for them to learn. It’s tough for them to focus in class. These behavior problems sometimes that kids have is due to the lack of nutrition, the lack of proper nutrition in their bodies.”

Joe Jordan, Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Indiana President/CEO

Efforts are being made throughout the city to address this widespread issue. The City of Fort Wayne recently renovated kitchens at youth centers in the hopes of better serving guests. Mayor Tom Henry has also hinted at upcoming long-term efforts to combat food insecurity.

“We’re trying to put together some plans and some programs, some future projects that will address that,” said Mayor Henry back in May. “But In the meantime we are struggling to try to make sure that no one goes hungry in our community.”

Meanwhile, a pair of local businesses hope to create a long-term model towards eliminating food deserts. Led by Ty Simmons, the Human Agriculture Cooperative and Utopian Community Grocery work in tandem to grow food in northeast Indiana and provide it for some of the poorest communities.

“We’ve turned into a microwave society where everything is so fast, and they want nutrition so fast,” Simmons said. “They want nutrition as fast, and there’s no quick nutrition, unless you’re eating fresh.”

So far, Utopian Community Grocery has gained a warm reception in southeastern Fort Wayne as it provides healthy ingredients, even a restaurant, for nearby residents.

“The farming program, it’s going to grow, it’s going to do bigger and better things and it’s going to provide food,” Simmons said. “The grocery store, we want it to be a focal point in each neighborhood where it’s going to do the same thing.”

Other organizations around Fort Wayne are partnering to teach families how to create tasty and nourishing meals. The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation uses “Our HEALing Kitchen” to teach those in low income or vulnerable communities cooking lessons. The concept is a “Train-the-Trainer” approach with chefs learning nourishing recipes and passing them on to other families.

Community leaders in Fort Wayne realize that this is not an easy fix, that it will take years to alleviate the stress that food deserts bring on affected families. With these combined efforts between non-profits and city programs, people like Marsha can hope that future generations will not have to worry about finding healthy meals.

“I’m hoping that this is a legacy that lives on.”

NOTE: The original story incorrectly listed the market on Pettit Avenue as Tim Didier Meats, when it was actually Didier Brothers Meat Market. The original Tim Didier Meats was located on the corner of Andrews and Huffman Street.

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