Giving residents easy access to healthy food choices is a challenge in many of the rural communities in the local area, but during the past year, officials in Starke County found a way to keep one town’s grocery store open.
When North Judson’s only grocery store was faced with closure a year ago, the Starke County Economic Development Foundation stepped in to help the town council attract a new buyer, according to the foundation’s executive director Charlie Weaver, “The town was looking for methodology that they could help, and working with them, the Development Foundation suggested that the town create a revolving loan fund, which the town did and actually loaned $50,000 to Heartland Grocery to acquire the cooling displays, the refrigerated units and that sort of thing in the store.” The Starke County Economic Development Foundation also worked with NIPSCO to find an incentive program to make the lighting systems in the store’s refrigerated display cases more energy-efficient.
Last week, Weaver traveled to Indianapolis to share his foundation’s experience with other economic development leaders from around Indiana. He presented his findings during a panel discussion on food deserts at the Indiana Economic Development Association’s spring conference. In rural areas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a community a food desert if it’s more than 10 miles from a grocery store.
Weaver says the closure of local grocery stores not only makes it harder to find fresh foods, but also affects a community’s identity. “We talked about at the conference that there used to be three things that would be the stalwart or the foundation of any town: you used to have a school, you had the local bank, and you had the grocery store,” he says. “So many towns have lost there schools now. You don’t have local banks, generally speaking, decisions are made elsewhere. And the other thing is the grocery store, and once you lose your grocery store, your town’s identity is gone. Your people lose service and all this sort of thing.”
He says North Judson’s experience demonstrates that there are steps local governments can take to stop the growth of food deserts, “We have food deserts in Starke County and food deserts that we’re probably not going to assist. But in North Judson, it was a very successful effort, and that came about because the town council in North Judson, under the leadership of Wendy Hoppe, was very, very cognizant of the fact that losing the only remaining grocery store in North Judson was a real hamper.”
Weaver says the Starke County Economic Development Foundation hopes to be able to help with similar projects in the future.