FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Fort Wayne’s NBC) – The southeast side of Fort Wayne has been historically considered a food desert. A local physician told Fort Wayne’s NBC News that the food desert negatively impacts residents and their families who live in the area.

UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA):

Leaders with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) researched food deserts across the country. USDA officials said limited access to supermarkets, supercenters, grocery stores, or other sources of healthy and affordable food may make it harder for some people to eat a healthy diet in this country. According to the Department’s research, the following, but not limited to, are contributing factors to a food desert:

  • Accessibility to sources of healthy food, as measured by distance to a store or by the number of stores in an area
  • Individual-level resources that may affect accessibility, such as family income or vehicle availability
  • Neighborhood-level indicators of resources, such as the average income of the neighborhood and the availability of public transportation.

Within the USDA’s study, researchers defined low-income as an area or household that has a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, the median family income is less than or equal to 80 percent of the State-wide median family income, and the median family income is less than or equal to 80 percent of the metropolitan area’s median-family income.

The study also indicated that 8.6 percent of all housing units in the United States do not have a vehicle, and 4 percent of all housing units are at least one-half mile from a store and without a vehicle.

SOUTHEAST FORT WAYNE:

Fort Wayne’s NBC News further looked into this issue in Fort Wayne. On the southeast side of the City, there are four major grocery stores:

  • Walmart (7502 Southtown Crossing Boulevard)
  • Kroger (218 East Pettit Avenue)
  • Aldi (7325 South Anthony Boulevard)
  • Save A Lot (3310 East Paulding Road)

To understand the food desert issue locally, Fort Wayne’s NBC News talked with Shanita Redd, who lives on the southeast side of the city, an area that has been historically considered a food desert.

Redd said she was born and raised on the southeast side of The Fort. She’s a single-mother to her 8-year-old son who has special needs. For many years, she did not have a car, Redd said, and had to push her son in a stroller and walk miles in order to pick up groceries. She added that she was not able to use a grocery cart throughout the store since she had to push her son’s stroller.

Redd said she could only purchase a few days worth of food at a time since the stroller had limited space.

“I always felt like eyes were on me. Like people were watching me, trying to make sure I wasn’t stealing anything.”

Shanita Redd

In order to best help her son, Redd said she went back to school, got a better paying job, and now has a car. However, with only one source of income, Redd said she has to carefully decide how to use her money, including whether to spend more time and money on gas to travel across town to buy groceries, or buy locally where fresh produce is limited, and healthier food items are more expensive. She added that the healthier food items also create a limited number of meals to feed her family.

On the other hand, Redd said there are plenty of convenience stores, and gas stations that offer junk food and unhealthier food items.

“You make due and try to survive on your own means with what you can afford. It may not be the healthiest choice, but it’s what you’re doing to survive.”

Shanita Redd

DR. CHARLES COATS:

To further understand how a food desert impacts residents, Fort Wayne’s NBC News talked with Dr. Charles Coats, the owner of Anthony Medical Associates. Dr. Coats said he was born and raised on the southeast side of Fort Wayne, and personally understands how a food desert impacts families. He shared that 90 percent of his patients are from the southeast community.

Dr. Coats said he has done extensive research on this issue for many years. According to Dr. Coats:

  • The southeast side of Fort Wayne has the highest rate of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes within the city
  • One in two Black women over the age of 50 will have a heart attack or stroke
  • 80 percent of Black women, who are 21 years old and older, will experience obesity

Dr. Coats said obesity can lead to short-term and long-term negative health problems. He shared the following graphic:

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Dr. Coats said socioeconomic issues drive these health issues, and a key factor is the food desert. He added many of his patients experience health problems that stem from the food desert.

“It hurts because you go into medicine to make a difference, and it really feels like, right now, we’re not making that big of a difference,” Dr. Coats said. “We’re not affecting communal change. You see something that can be easily changed and improved.”

“You’re almost teaching the kids to not go to the grocery stores to get fresh vegetables because you’re actually shopping in the neighborhood, which ends up being convenient stores. You’re going to the gas station to get milk, you’re going there to get fruits, which may not be that fresh. You get them set in a pattern and a lifestyle in terms of how they buy things. And it’s not because the parents want that. It’s because the parents can’t afford or don’t have the ability to go to different places,” said Dr. Coats.

FORT WAYNE MAYOR TOM HENRY:

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Fort Wayne’s NBC News sat down and spoke with Mayor Tom Henry to understand how the administration plans to solve this issue.

Mayor Henry said he’s aware of the issue. He said, “unfortunately we do have part of our city that is classified as a food desert area. That’s primarily the 46806 zip code. We just don’t have much to offer in the way of fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables, other types of nutritious food offerings.”

Mayor Henry told Fort Wayne’s NBC News that he has pushed for the development of urban farms, and has helped created community kitchens that help teach people how to cook health meals.

Fort Wayne’s NBC News asked Mayor Henry if there were any commitments that he would be willing to make going forward in order to show residents in the southeast side of Fort Wayne that help is on the way.

“I’ve committed already to do something to the southeast Fort Wayne to make sure more and more foods are readily available to them. We have been working with the St. Joe Foundation which has historically put areas of food availability together for southeast Fort Wayne. I’ve recommitted to working with them,” said Mayor Tom Henry.

Mayor Henry added that residents can also expect new initiatives soon although he wouldn’t go into detail.

“I’m acutely aware of the situation that we do not have nutritious food that is readily available to a lot of our residents, particularly those in the 46806 zip code,” Henry said. “And I’m committed to doing something to make the availability of good food available to them. And we’ll do something.”

He said residents can expect an announcement by this summer.

COUNCILWOMAN SHARON TUCKER:

Fort Wayne’s NBC News also sat down and spoke with Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, who oversees the southeast side of the Summit City.

Councilwoman Tucker said there were more options for residents to buy fresh produce and healthier food items on the southeast side of the city 20 years ago. She said restoring those options is a priority.

She said she has been working with the administration to address this issue.

“My experience has been trying to work with the City, and the administration, and the community to, first of all, gather data to figure out how the numbers lie,” Councilwoman Tucker said. “To figure out where opportunities exist. And with the southeast strategy, we kind of did a deep dive into what the community believes are the needs as far as food access and food supply goes.”

Fort Wayne’s NBC News asked the Concilwoman if there were any commitments she would be willing to make to address the food desert issue going forward.

“My PASE. Project Activate Southeast Fort Wayne. A pitch competition where we are helping to create entrepreneurial businesses in the southeast from within the community,” Councilwoman Tucker said.

The Concilwoman added that the initiative is already off the ground.

“We have raised the funds that are needed to be able to provide wrap around services, grants to individual, so that we can help their business become successful.”

She added “my commitment is to continue to build and create “Project Activate Southeast,” PASE is what I call it, so that we can continue over the next five years, creating the pitch competition to be able to help a business activate and grow in southeast Fort Wayne.

The Councilwoman shared details on how she is working to make this happen.

“I am willing to listen and partner together people who have resources and ideas, working together, to be able to put the community together with them. If we are able to invite a grocery store. If we’re able to invite a vendor with him (owner of grocery store), and encourage the community to help support it so that he is able to stay open and sustain it, then that’s a win-win for all three people,” the Councilwoman added. “The City, the community, and the business entity. Those are the relationships I am working to foster, create, and to form so that we can be able to make a change.”

UTOPIAN COMMUNITY GROCERY:

Fort Wayne’s NBC News stopped by the new Utopian Community Grocery, located at 608 Oxford Street, to talk with co-owner Ty Simmons.

Simmons said he and the other nine co-owners of the business are trying to tackle the food desert issue with their new grocery store.

He said the grocery store offers residents an opportunity to purchase fresh produce and healthier food items within the community. He added the store also has an indoor restaurant where people can sit down and eat. This allows people, who may not have the resources to travel far distances, to eat healthier meals, Simmons shared.

However, Simmons said he and his team have a bigger goal in mind.

Simmons added they hope to inspire other people to launch their own businesses within the southeast community. He said that would allow people to earn and spend money in their own community, which would help improve the economic health of the southeast area. He said this would be a long-term solution to addressing the food desert issue.

“We want this generation, the next generation to see this model and say I want a grocery store. I want to own my gas station. I want to own my own restaurant. Being a business owner is to inspire the people around you, and the next people who come behind you.”

Ty simmons, co-founder of Utopian Community Grocery

RESIDENTS IN SOUTHEAST FORT WAYNE:

To further understand the food desert issue and how residents in the southeast community feel, Fort Wayne’s NBC News also spoke with Tameko Billingsley. She said she’s hopeful changes will come, however, until then, she said, many families in the area will continue to deal with the same struggles.

“If you bring another high price fast food restaurant over here, that doesn’t do our community any good. It doesn’t do our kids any good. That doesn’t help our obesity problems on this side of town, as though they say we have. It doesn’t help the bad eating habits that they say our children have over here on the southeast side, but if you give us better options, and better quality, and more affordable products, it will make a difference.”

Fort Wayne’s NBC News also talked with Pastor Raymond Dix of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, located at 1331 Gay Street in Fort Wayne. He said people in the southeast side of Fort Wayne want more job opportunities, and the ability to earn and spend money in their own community.

“The more times a dollar turns over in a neighborhood, we all know the statistics. It’s much better for the economic health of that neighborhood.”

Larry Gist, the president of the NAACP Chapter of Fort Wayne said “south side of town is lacking, food is lacking. You really have to travel to get fresh vegetables. We have a Walmart and Kroger over in this area, but still, people, if they have to catch a bus or a ride, it’s still not in their community.”

Gist added “when you live in a food desert, you can’t just go out and get something quick. You have to go to a gas station and pay that high price. You can pay a quart of milk, and pay the same price of a half gallon of milk at a grocery store. It’s not a cost saving, it’s more expenses for these families.”

Redd said she’s hopeful that she will see actual concrete changes in the future.

Redd and many of her neighbors are relying on what happens next for their community. Redd said she’s not only fighting for herself, but she’s also trying to raise her son in the best environment possible.

“My son is my responsibility. And it may be hard doing it alone. At the end of the day, I chose to have him. And I owe him everything.”

Shanita Redd