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This year has been a bloodbath for brick-and-mortar retail, including supermarkets and pharmacies across Northwest Indiana to the detriment of some of the Region’s neediest residents.

A wave of closures has raised renewed concerns about food and pharmacy deserts in Northwest Indiana, especially in inner cities, small towns and rural areas. The USDA says that food deserts are areas where a person has to travel a mile or more to visit a grocery store, farmers market or other source of fresh fruits and vegetables; pharmacy deserts are predicated on a similar concept but with critical and sometimes life-saving medications.

Leaders are concerned the impoverished across the Region will struggle to find fresh produce or prescriptions within a reasonable distance.

“These closings will mean that many residents of Northwest Indiana will lose convenient, reasonable or even complete access to supermarkets or pharmacies,” said Micah Pollak, Indiana University Northwest assistant professor of economics. “This will have wide-ranging health consequences that will disproportionately fall on lower-income households and may take years or decades to fully manifest.”

Green: Low income and low access where a significant number or share of residents is more than 1 urban mile or 10 rural miles from the nearest supermarket.
Orange: Low-income and low-access where a significant number or share of residents is more than 1/2 urban mile or 10 rural miles from the nearest supermarket.
Red: Low-income and low-access where a significant number or share of residents is more than 1 urban mile or 20 rural miles from the nearest supermarket.
Yellow: Low-income and low-access where more than 100 housing units do not have a vehicle and are more than 1/2 mile from the nearest supermarket, or a significant number or share of residents are more than 20 miles from the nearest supermarket.

Convenience lost

Highland resident Sherry Croach shopped for about 20 years at the Ultra Foods at Indianapolis Boulevard and Ridge Road in Highland, which opened in 1981 and closed this year.

"I could run over there for a couple items," she said. "It was five minutes away, a hop, a skip and jump."

Now Croach must drive farther to the Meijer in south Highland, the Walmart up the road in Hammond or the Van Til's supermarket on 169th Street in Hammond. She's cut down from grocery shopping once a week to once every two weeks.

"I don't grocery shop as much," she said. "I don't run out if I just need milk, eggs or potatoes. It's a pain."

Croach said she misses the low prices and selection at Ultra, especially the quality meat it had. The butchers always knew what cuts of meat she wanted, and wouldn't hesitate to cut a roast into pieces for her.

"They were always restocked," she said. "If you couldn't find something, like a type of dog food, they'd order it."

The situation is different for residents of Hebron, a community of about 3,700 people in Porter County. The town lost its only full-service supermarket when Patz’s Market recently closed, forcing residents to drive at least 10 miles or more to neighboring communities for groceries.

Thomas Long, president of NITCO, the telephone and internet company which is among Hebron's largest employers, said the closing of Patz's Market has taken a toll on the town.

"People tell me it is devastating and very inconvenient," he said.

Long said one of his employees he spoke to recently nearly started crying when Patz's closing was brought up. It was the town's only full-service supermarket.

"People here really relied upon Patz's," he said. "Now they go to Valpo, Lakes of the Four Seasons, Lowell or Crown Point."

Some employees told him they already shopped for groceries mostly out of town, but appreciated having a grocery store close to home if they ran out of milk or eggs.

"They said they would do their big grocery shopping at Lakes of the Four Seasons or Valpo and use Patz for odds and ends," he said. "Stop by on the way home and pick up a few items. But they can’t do that anymore."

Voids left by closures

Cities, suburbs and small towns across Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties have been affected.

Strack & Van Til parent company Central Grocers went bankrupt earlier this year, shrinking from 38 stores to 20, and phasing out the entire discount Ultra Foods brand. Ultra had served Northwest Indiana and Chicago suburbs in Illinois, including many low-income neighborhoods, for more than three decades.

Gary's Black Oak neighborhood lost the Ultra Foods on Ridge Road, which was its only large supermarket. Strack & Van Til, by far the Region’s largest independent grocer, shuttered two stores in Merrillville, including one of the town’s oldest, which happened to be in one of its most established neighborhoods.

Last year, LaPorte lost Hilbish Drug, the Maple Lane Mall Kmart that had a pharmacy and the Al's Supermarket on the west side of town.

Al’s Supermarket also shuttered this year in South Haven, which additionally lost its Fagen Pharmacy when that chain was sold to CVS, which promptly closed a dozen Fagen stores. Gary’s lakefront Miller neighborhood abruptly lost both its Fagen and Walgreens pharmacies, after Walgreens closed three locations in the Steel City, as well as its pharmacy at the southeast corner of Ind. 51 and Ind. 6 in Hobart.

The city of Gary has been trying to get CVS, Rite Aid and others to open more pharmacies in the city.

“We are diligently working toward a solution, but we do not have an update to share at this time,” Director of Communications LaLosa Dent Burns said.

Urban farms

Community leaders like Miller Spotlight Community Builder and Indiana District 3 state Legislature candidate Jessica Renslow also have reached out to pharmacies to serve the Miller and Aetna neighborhoods of Gary, now that both Walgreens and Fagen have closed.

Renslow said it’s especially an issue for residents who rely on public transportation to get around, since there’s no convenient way for them to get to pharmacies in nearby Lake Station and Hobart.

"Miller has the same population as Griffith and the largest concentration of people in the city of Gary who use public transportation," she said. "Fagen was just shocking because it was a family business started in Gary. If we had more time and more warning, we could have done more of a campaign to save it."

The closures also hurt the city's image, potentially deterring other investment, because people drive along Ind. 20 and see the closed Walgreens and don't know about positive developments, such as the bike-sharing programs or the upgraded train station coming to Miller, Renslow said. Efforts have been underway to address both pharmacy and food deserts in the city.

"We talked to the local grocery store in Miller, and they've gotten more responsible with the produce selection," she said. 

Renslow said urban farms have been springing up all over Gary as well.

"People are taking the bull by the horns and growing their own food," she said. "Emerson Spotlight's farm grew 9,000 pounds of food this year, and gave 4,500 pounds away. Farmers markets are springing up across Gary."

On the pharmacy front, it might take some creativity, including a marketing campaign about Gary's buying power, Renslow said. Walgreens closed after it stopped taking Medicaid in Indiana this year, but those residents still need prescriptions and there's also the untapped markets of beach-going tourists and Chicagoans who summer in Miller, she said.

Already a problem

Food deserts in Northwest Indiana already were bad, even without all the closures this year.

“Based on USDA data, food deserts in Northwest Indiana are already very bad,” Pollak said. “Almost the entirety of East Chicago, Hammond and Gary qualifies as food deserts with a significant portion of both low-income population and population more than a half mile from the nearest supermarket. These data are from 2015, so they do not reflect the closings from this year, which will only worsen existing deserts and add more deserts.”

In some cases people could move closer to grocery stores or pharmacies, Pollack said. In others, their health likely will suffer.

“The negative effects of these closings will depend a lot on the income and mobility of residents, with lower income families suffering the worst." he said. "For residents who can afford and are able to travel farther to reach the nearest grocery store or pharmacy, the effect may be limited to adding additional strain on already tight budgets.” Pollack said.

He said for residents who are unable or cannot afford to travel farther, the problems will be more severe.

"Residents lacking sufficient public or private transportation will, in many cases, be forced to go without access to fresh produce, meat or dairy," Pollak said. "These residents may be forced to rely on high-calorie, lower-quality, heavily-processed 'junk food' as the only food available. The long-term societal problems of this can be severe, leading to an increase in heart disease, obesity, diabetes and depression.”

Health consequences

Communities across Northwest Indiana will suffer because of the pharmacy and grocery store closings, Pollack said.

“While a pharmacy desert has the potential for immediate life-threatening consequences, generally food deserts are worse," he said. "Unlike the pharmacy industry, in which products tend to have a long shelf life and be relatively compact, grocery stores require greater space, deal with highly perishable products and extremely tight profit margins."

Pollak said as a result, food deserts tend to be much more severe, widespread and more difficult to address.

"At the same time, while the consequences of a food desert are less immediately obvious, they can have long-lasting and severe consequences on health, adding another major burden on communities that already face significant challenges,” he said.

Local cities and towns, as well as charities, will have to step up as these industries consolidate, and even look at alternatives to traditional grocery stores, Pollack said.

“Community groups and the government can address this problem by first identifying food and pharmacy deserts that are the most severe. Tools like the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas are invaluable for this,” he said. “Next, there needs to be a serious community discussion about how best to address this challenge. This may mean providing tax incentives to attract a new supermarket or more creative solutions like bringing in grocery trucks, farmers markets or building community gardens.”


Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.