TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Surrounded by green grass and fields of golden grain, many Wabash Valley residents remain trapped in a "food desert."
A coalition of private and public sector entities hope to change that through innovative programming, including the establishment of a Wabash Valley Food Hub, connecting local growers to consumers.
Defined by federal agencies in terms of income and access to fresh groceries, a "food desert" is a census tract scoring low in both.
A tract must have either a poverty rate exceeding 20 percent, or a median family income below 80 percent that of the area, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Designation also requires a "low-access community" have a minimum of 500 people where at least 33 percent reside more than a mile from a supermarket, or in rural tracts, 10 miles.
Joni Wise, administrator of the Vigo County Health Department and chair of the United Way's Community Health Initiative Committee, said at least two areas qualify locally. How to address this has been discussed since August, with organizers considering initiatives such as those sponsored by Indiana University Health via its "Garden on the Go Project" in Indianapolis.
Public meetings to gauge interest have been hosted from Sullivan to Parke counties, with another session scheduled at 6:30 p.m. CST today in the University of Illinois Extension Building at Marshall.
"In other cities it's always been a student-driven program," Wise said, explaining the group hopes university students likewise take the lead here.
In addition to a food hub, other ideas include teaching kitchens and nutrition classes, she told the Tribune-Star.
Jason Saavedra, principle of J3 Concepts and project manager for planning the Wabash Valley Food Hub, explained such organizations match local growers with consumers. Whereas one grower might not be able to satisfy the volume needed for a retailer, or the diversity for a hospital, working as a "member-driven" group, they can.
"So as an example, a hospital can be a consumer," he said, adding this won't replace all food sources for any one consumer, but could increase the overall public access.
Response has been positive, he said, particularly among growers.
Initial plans are to have the hub operational by June 2013.
Putnam County farmer Tom Holton, owner of Red Barn Farms, said he's interested.
"We just really want people to understand where their food comes from," he said, describing his 150-acre operation as an "all-natural farm."
At that size, Holton is small by traditional farming standards but huge on a farmers market scale. His family farm maintains upwards of 5,000 pasture-raised chickens, 50 head of cattle, turkeys, hogs and chemical-free vegetables.
"We raise just about everything," he said, adding he also markets online at www.redbarnfamily.com and Facebook.
Holton met Wabash Valley Food Hub organizers while working a farmers market and became very interested in going forward. The model could allow him access to larger customers and partnerships.
"And I've always believed very deeply in what we're doing, so I want to provide as healthy of an alternative for people as I can," he said.