16 News Now Investigates: Food Deserts in South Bend

Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 6:26 PM EST
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - As many of us prepare to feast for the holidays, some right 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 up 36% right now in the need,” says Director of Agency Relations Brandy Love.

Finding places to purchase affordable, healthy meals is also getting more difficult.

“The days of the neighborhood grocery store, they don’t exist anymore,” says Food Bank of Northern Indiana’s CEO & Executive Director Marijo Martinec.

This lack of grocery stores in some neighborhoods leads to food deserts. A food desert is an area where a substantial number of residents do not have easy access to affordable or good-quality fresh food.

Census data has identified 11 areas of St. Joseph County where a significant amount of people live more than a mile from the nearest supermarket.

“Our most recent food desert is off of Portage because the old Martin’s is gone. Now they’ve taken out CVS,” explains Brandy Love.

Robin Vida, with the St. Joseph County Health Department, agrees this area is a food desert.

“Their closest retail grocer is going to be either Meijer or Walmart or Aldi, which is clearly quite a distance from where they live,” she adds.

Researchers from The University of Notre Dame are looking at this specific region as part of a three-year study in the hopes of developing an app to potentially address some the food access issues faced by those living in food deserts. They’ve met with residents of South Bend’s near northwest side who shared concerns about the quality of the food they’re bringing home.

“Even when it’s a grocer that’s a well-known grocer that may have multiple locations, the ones that are near them and that are accessible still have quality differences sometimes,” says Ron Metoyer, the Associate Dean at Notre Dame’s College of Engineering.

“You can still be a big brand, but they’re not all equal even if they still have the same sort of flagship name,” adds Ann-Marie Conrado, an Associate Professor of Industrial Design at the university. “It’s important to understand those disparities exist systemically that make it challenging.”

The St. Joseph County Health Department says it’s items like french fries and soda pop that are often more available than fresh fruits and vegetables.

“They’re a food swamp with fast food restaurants or convenience stores or those things that are really close together. So they’re marketing a very unhealthy low-quality food to low income and specific populations,” says Robin Vida. “The developers plan that way.”

That, plus relying on non-perishable items, can create or worsen health issues.

“Whether it be diabetes or hypertension, and so on. So it’s important that they have access to healthy foods so they can manage those conditions,” says Metoyer.

“If someone already has struggles getting there they may only be able to go there once a week, once every two weeks. So there’s going to be more of a dependency on processed foods, canned goods, which we know of as high in sodium, which adds all kinds of other issues,” adds Conrado.

So how do we break the cycle– and make sure nutritious food is available for everyone?

“One potential solution would be to look at rezoning or zoning laws. How do you restrict those fast food commodities from coming in. Or say, for every one mile there can be a two and a grocery store,” explains Vida.

One 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 station agrees to include a convenience store with “a stock of basic groceries, including some healthy food choices, e.g., deli, vegetables, milk, bread and fruit”. That makes it a potential resource for the community.

But the struggle continues for those still living in a food desert.

“You can’t think critically when you’re hungry. You can’t handle conflict in a manner that is constructive when you’re hunger. And even more importantly, you can’t be healthy if you are hungry,” says Robin Vida.

“If you live in an area where you may not have access to transportation, it’s a challenge, and there is a food 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 operates a food pantry at Laymen Chapel CME Church in an area of South Bend with low access to food.

“These people are hungry, they’re in our area, they’re looking to us to kind of give them a hand up, and we do it. We do what we can do,” she says.

Rev. Waller tells us there’s an increase in need in our community, so much so that she’s feeding people outside of the normal operating hours for the pantry. Families are among those seeking help from the pantry.

“We feed 5, 6, 7 babies, including mom. Because, the majority of our mothers are single parents. So we’re going to feed them,” explains Waller.

Her passion for helping others is obvious.

“You’re letting them know that hey, sometime along the way maybe you will be the one that’s helping another person. You pass that on,” 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. Doesn’t make them wrong-doers. They’re just caught up in a bad situation that a whole lotta people are caught up in.”

It’s a feeling that runs strong through Michiana, and is even documented by Notre Dame researchers.

“The spirit of community is alive and well. Even in these areas that we call food deserts, and they’re working together to try to overcome a lot of these barriers,” says Ann-Marie Conrado.

This comes at a time where any of us could soon find ourselves in need of some help.

“There are a lot of people that are just one paycheck away from being that family that needs help getting access to food,” adds Ron Metoyer.

The Food Bank of Northern Indiana says the need in our community is great.

“We’re going to be better when people are fed,” says their CEO & Executive Director. “They’re going to be able to be more productive members of our communities and we’ll be able to do more.”

Those who want to help 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.