In the middle of an area that has been described as a “food desert” because of its lack of access to fresh food and grocery store options, the Johnnie Mae Farmstand in Fort Wayne’s Renaissance Pointe neighborhood gives residents the opportunity to put produce on their dinner tables on Friday night that was plucked out of the ground Friday morning.
It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
The garden on the plot of land at 2518 Winter St., also home to an old fire station that has been renovated for the community’s use, isn’t very large. But its location is perfect for serving a market that for years has had very little access to the fresh produce necessary for a healthy diet.
The number of visitors to the farm stand has picked up steadily since it opened June 1. Each Friday when it opens, “A steady stream of people show up,” said Kelly Lundberg, deputy director for community development in the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services. “Usually the first customers are there within five minutes of when the doors open.”
The city has owned the property, “pretty much forever, it seems,” Lundberg said. After the fire station operations were mothballed, it was used by the neighborhood for canning, and then just sat vacant.
“When we initially went into the neighborhood and started looking at the Renaissance Pointe development, we started looking at the building,” Lundberg said. “It’s really cool and we started asking, what opportunities does it provide for some sort of a neighborhood benefit? Obviously, it took us a while but we finally figured out if that’s a food desert and has limited access to fresh produce, why not try to operate some sort of an urban farm there and see if we can’t provide access to fresh, affordable produce in the area?”
The city completed the historic renovation of former fire station No. 9 in 2015, and equipped it with a commercial kitchen that is available for rent or use by community groups. The building won a 2016 Archie award and is named after long-time neighborhood advocate Johnnie Mae White.
In 2016, the first crops were planted on the site. The garden and the station were managed by a contractor who also did some mentoring programs for children there, but in the garden’s first two years, the operator wasn’t as effective as the city wanted at getting the produce grown there into the hands of the neighborhood residents.
“I think we’ve always been really good at growing things out there….that’s always been pretty easy for us. The distribution side has been a little more complicated, figuring out how to make the food accessible,” Lundberg said. “We really wanted to maximize the benefit of that plot of land and all the produce there and provide it to as many people as possible and make it accessible and make sure people knew it was there.”
Last fall, the city sought help to do just that from the agriculture experts at the Purdue Extension Service’s Allen County office. Extension Services proposed a farmers market concept, and surveyed residents to find out what they would like to see grown there, what day of the week would they like the market to be open and what other preferences they might have for the operation, said Vickie Hadley,the county’s extension director.
“We made a decision to open the farm stand June 1 and we stuck to it,” Hadley said. “We didn’t have a lot of produce, but the key thing is, we’ve got it off the ground; we’ve got it going and functioning. Our next goal is to get people in the neighborhood to truly take ownership and be a key part in all of it. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us but it’s looking very positive and uplifting.”
Also part of the Johnnie Mae partnership are Vincent Village, Community Harvest Food Bank, the Renaissance Pointe YMCA and the Renaissance Pointe Neighborhood Association.
Vincent Village is nearby and serves as the fiscal agent and manager of the property. Community Harvest donated some unused display racks and a small cooling unit. Any produce picked on Friday that isn’t sold is donated to Community Harvest for its food banks.
Each of the organizations also provides volunteers to run the farm stand, taking turns from one month to the next.
“We are committed,” Hadley said. “We’re going to be there every week. We’re going to have fresh produce. It’s good quality produce and it’s fresh produce right from their own neighborhood.”
As of the beginning of August, the farm stand had sold 1,250 pounds of produce since opening, Lundberg said. The farm stand is open to the public, so it’s not clear where its customers are coming from, but all the promotion for it has been directed to the Renaissance Point and surrounding neighborhoods.
The partnership is already looking ahead to next year to what might be done to improve the operation. “We want to maximize the space and get as much variety as possible,” Hadley said.
That may mean adding some form of irrigation to make the garden less vulnerable to dry weather, bringing in new varieties of produce and staggering planting dates to make sure fresh produce is available throughout the season.
The selection of items offered this year include collard greens, mint, tomatoes, sweet corn, zucchini, summer squash, green beans, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, eggplant, tomatillos and watermelon.
The produce is not organic, and Hadley said she doubts whether the operation would ever seek organic certification, but it is using more natural methods as much as possible and looking very carefully at what chemicals being used and their quantity.
The Extension office also surveyed grocery stores that seemed to serve the residents of the neighborhood, and priced its offerings to be competitive, if not a little lower. Any money made is plowed right back into the operation. “It doesn’t cover expenses, but we want to keep prices affordable,” Hadley acknowledged.
Because the Extension Service is in the business of education, it also is focusing on programming and outreach that will help residents develop healthy cooking skills. It is getting some help with that from the HEAL (healthy eating, active living) initiative sponsored by the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation and Parkview Health. Classes are expected to start in the fall and continue during the winter.
The Johnnie Mae Farmstand is open from 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays through October.