The Community Healthcare System farmers market opened Wednesday, June 8, providing a place for residents to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, honey and canned foods from microbusinesses close to their homes. The kickoff event for a full summer of twice-monthly garden variety sales on the campus of St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago also offers educational opportunities and tools that community members can use.
The healthcare system teamed up with Legacy Foundation in January to expand the Lake County Eats Local! program to East Chicago because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines the city as a food desert – an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In this instance, it means there is no grocery store within a mile radius of a given location. The city of East Chicago has only one major grocery store to serve its residents.
“St. Catherine Hospital’s healthcare teams understand that living in a food desert may put people at increased risk of obesity, diabetes and other weight-related conditions,” said Debra Gruszecki Brown, community outreach director for Community Healthcare System. “One outreach mission here is to focus on providing residents with opportunities to get nutritious, high-quality, affordable foods along with a good dose of health information.”
This farmers market does all of those things. Alongside the microbusinesses was a local chef who demonstrated ways to repurpose fresh vegetables. Shoppers also had an opportunity to pick up free COVID-19 test kits and N95 masks and get their blood pressure readings at the 219 Health Network mobile clinic.
Donna Catalano, the community development director for the South Shore Neighborhood Development Corp. under Legacy Foundation, said the foundation received a grant in 2018 to bring farmers markets into food deserts, and that grant has been extended.
“Legacy Foundation, back in 2018, got a grant from the USDA to take farmers markets into food deserts. In Lake County alone, there are 27 food deserts,” Catalano said. “We picked two communities – East Chicago and Gary, which alone has 14 food deserts.”
Along with providing an accessible location to purchase this food, the market aims to increase the affordability of healthful foods by offering a variety of payment options, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card and cash. “Our markets allow clients or shoppers to use their EBT cards at the vendors who have SNAP-eligible foods,” Catalano said. “The other thing is we also have programs that help support small businesses. These vendors here are what they consider microbusinesses. They don't have a storefront yet, so they're trying their products out at places like this. This is a win-win for everybody.”
As Shawnta Benitez, operations manager for 219 Health Network, a look-alike Federally Qualified Health Center in East Chicago, handed out free portion food plates to passersby, she said it felt great to be part of the farmers market. “It’s rewarding when you can reach out to a community that's in desperate need of education and health service. We're able to offer both of those services,” Benitez said.
Bolaños, the owner of Easy Peazy eatery in East Chicago, was in her element when she began her demonstration at noon. After holding top-tier culinary positions in downtown Chicago, she decided to move back home to East Chicago to serve her community and share her talents with Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Bolaños donated her time to help kick off the farmers markets in East Chicago, calling it a celebration of community, Gruszecki Brown said.
Providing demonstrations allows community members to see how easy it is to make high-quality, healthy meals, and Bolaños counted down the minutes until she was able to teach her audience how to properly prepare a shrimp ceviche dish. As she was demonstrating, more and more people crowded around the booth. As people lined up to taste the dish, Bolaños gave helpful tips on how to pickle cucumber, jalapenos, red onions and asparagus.
“I do like educating people. Showing them if there's a wrong way, this is the right way to do it, or this is an easier way, but still keeping it consistent and high quality and flavorful,” Bolaños said.
The farmers market is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every first and third Wednesday of the month at St. Catherine Hospital, 4320 Fir St., in East Chicago.
The final market is Aug. 24. To become a vendor, visit lakecountyeatslocal.org. For more information on Community Healthcare System, visit comhs.org.