Farmers markets have become a favorite summer pastime, but their purpose is rooted in more than day trippers’ entertainment. Starting in June, Lake County Eats Local will be hosting weekly farmers markets organized to increase food accessibility in East Chicago and Gary.
The program is the culmination of a partnership between Legacy Foundation, the NWI Food Council, and Purdue University Cooperative Extension Lake County, as well as the Cities of Gary and East Chicago. For three years, the team has been working to obtain funding for the program, which will increase revenue, accessibility to fresh produce, and sustainability in the two cities. Now, through a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018, Lake County Eats Local is ready to entertain vendors and visitors.
“The food deserts in Gary and East Chicago have left residents with a lack of access to fruits and vegetables that are close by,” said Bushra H. Rehman, Legacy Foundation’s community development director. “This project is responsive to the overall mission of the South Shore Neighborhood Development Corporation (SSNDC) at Legacy Foundation, a new organization designed to bring change through collaborations and inclusion of the community. Our key goal is to bring economic prosperity to communities of Lake County.”
The project not only benefits the consumers, but also the farmers who provide the goods.
“We see this program as designed to provide consumers with the products they need for healthy lives, but also to help local farmers earn revenue by selling their products locally,” she said.
“Our mission is to build a just, sustainable, and thriving locally-oriented food system for all in Northwest Indiana through networking, education, advocacy, and projects,” said Anne Massie, president of NWI Food Council. “We work day in and day out to improve food access and farm viability simultaneously—where our region's farmers can make a living and everyone in NWI can have access to local, nutrient-dense food.”
Massie continued, “This balance, for us, is pivotal to a sustainable food system that supports healthy communities, that is just and equitable, that serves everyone. By collaborating on this grant, we are able to fulfill every part of our mission and drive our goals forward arm-in-arm with so many others.”
From securing grant dollars to navigating permits, the collaboration faced plenty of hurdles. Both Massie and Rehman expressed gratitude to each individual and organization who has contributed to the cause and made its execution smoother than anticipated.
“We have an incredible leadership team that is dedicated to collaboration, which takes time, patience and a willingness to compromise,” Massie said. “Because we've had such great support from individuals working on this project as well as from the steering committee made up of community leaders, this project hasn't felt terribly challenging pulling together—it's felt hopeful and empowering! There are so many leaders in our region who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work together.”
“The partners in this program have been involved all the way with input and discussion, and have actively worked to overcome hurdles along the way,” Rehman agreed. “We’re so proud of how it’s all coming together—farmers willing to sell locally, organizations ready to use their sites for markets, and how the cities have embraced our vision and worked to make it successful. We look forward to getting started and reaching people who need this assistance.”
Each respective organization in Lake County Eats Local is prepared to learn from this year’s series of markets. Massie broke down how each department’s “wheelhouse” reflects in the program.
“Legacy Foundation has been an incredible convener of resources, ideas and financial backing for Lake County and with their grant experience, they will ensure transparency and accountability with this project. Purdue Extension will be providing a litany of technical support, evaluation resources, and community wellness information, which are important for organizing the new farmers markets, improving farmers' sales at market, tracking our successes and failures and tackling food insecurity issues head on with education and support,” she said.
“The Cities of Gary and East Chicago will be invaluable to ensuring the project directly improves the lives of its citizens and supporting the goals of the grant with city resources and guidance,” Massie continued. “The NWI Food Council, an all-volunteer organization, is working to make this project collaborative with other grant dollars currently dedicated to food systems work in NWI, provide resources and marketing assistance from stakeholders across the region, and ensure a long-range sustainability plan where the goals of improving food access and farm viability are prioritized in region.”
She went on to describe ways to support their mission beyond attending the markets.
“Support your local farmers!” she said. “We need help spreading the word that our markets accept SNAP/EBT, Senior Vouchers and WIC and we are working to also have a ‘Double-Up Bucks’ program, which double the value of food assistance dollars at participating farmers markets. Sponsors are needed! The more folks we have involved, the better chance we have of succeeding and expanding such programs to other communities of need.”
The Lake County Eats Local program is needed now more than ever.
“Everyone has a sense of urgency about making our region food secure, economically sustainable, and healthy,” Massie said. “I am looking forward to seeing neighborhoods who have gone decades without access to high quality, fresh food get access to food grown by farmers within Gary and around NWI.”
Markets are easily accessible by city bus lines. Locations include Unity Plaza and Washington Park in East Chicago, and the YWCA and ArtHouse in Gary. Kickoff date is set for June 13 at the ArtHouse.