MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. – The Economic Development Corporation Michigan City is partnering with Purdue Extension to cultivate ideas for tackling the food desert designation of areas in Michigan City.

The Purdue Extension team is leading a study to collaboratively collect and analyze data and community input that will lead to evidence-based solutions aimed at enhancing food access for community members in these affected areas, such as a food co-op or grocery store. A food desert designation indicates these areas have relatively high poverty rates and low accessibility to resources, according to the USDA-ERS. The East and West sides of the city have been designated food deserts.

“We are grateful for our partners on this project, which is necessary to identify solutions that will best address the food access issue. Horizon, Centier and Franciscan Alliance are all helping support this study,” said EDCMC Executive Director Clarence L. Hulse. “The study will utilize community meetings, surveys and data breakdowns to really dig deep to identify issues and possible solutions for bringing food to the table of those most in need.”

A recent virtual kick-off meeting outlined the initial steps and connected members of the task force team, including Michigan City Council President Michael Mack and Fifth Ward Councilperson Tracie Tillman.

“This initiative started a long time ago and it is amazing how far we have already gone,” Mack said. “We are excited to hear the results, and the community will be happy to see that a team of knowledgeable individuals are working on this study.”

“I am ecstatic that this is moving forward and am looking toward implementing strategies to help those in food desert areas,” Tillman added.

The Purdue team is already delving into published secondary data as well as putting together questions for a survey to capture primary data directly from the community.

“These steps are what we need to take to inform evidence-based strategies,” said Dr. Michael Wilcox, Purdue Extension’s Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development. “We want this to be community driven and a community-focused effort.”

The Purdue Extension team will assist with putting together the survey that will go out to those in the food desert designated areas as an initial way to gather input. Beyond the surveys, focus groups will be put together later in the year. Tours of areas that have implemented strategies to tackle food desert designations are also down the road.

“We are seeking recommendations on what the community wants to see. We want a broad array of the community to take part in the survey and focus groups and offer input,” said Kara Salazar, Purdue Extension Assistant Program Leader and Extension Specialist for Sustainable Communities.

Wilcox expects to have strategies and the report ready by the end of 2021 but is keeping an eye on Covid’s impact.

“With our LaPorte County Purdue Extension staff deeply involved in the entire process, in addition to the important local partnerships that are already being cultivated, we are in an excellent position to make this process as inclusive as possible. For instance, could we go door-to-door to enhance our response rate of the survey? Perhaps, but we want to make sure to hear the voice of the people and be respectful of everyone’s health status,” he said. “In the meantime, our team is getting data snapshots hammered out, and we will be learning what could be of use to our conversations with the community.”

Hulse said community members should keep an eye out for the survey link, which will be shared through various platforms.

“We will really need our residents to step up and share their insights – that is the only way we will really be able to address this issue,” he said. “A lack of access to healthy food can really have a ripple effect in these communities, and we hope to find ways to resolve these additional issues when they come to the forefront.”