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Next to the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point is a small plot of land that is making a big impact.

Encompassing just over 600 square feet, the 18 raised beds have produced enough fresh produce so far this growing season to distribute 300 pounds - or 1,200 servings - to those in need in Lake County.

The Purdue Extension-Lake County initiative supplies healthy produce to food pantries within food desert areas in Lake County. The Purdue Nutrition Education Program chose five county Extension offices across Indiana, including Lake County, to be part of a first-year pilot.

“This program was developed as a way to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for Indiana families experiencing poverty,” said Terri Saltzman, community wellness coordinator for Purdue Extension-Lake County.

Grants made available to the five county offices were used to grow, harvest and transport the produce, which include everything from tomatoes and green peppers, to Swiss chard, dragon beans and various leaf lettuces.

“We started planting the garden in May, and with some season extension materials, we should be able to grow into October,” Saltzman said.

Extension staff and master gardeners maintain the garden, and workers from the Kimbrough Work Release Program assisted with constructing some of the garden beds.

In Lake County, the produce is supplied to pantries associated with Catholic Charities and The First AME Church on Massachusetts Street in Gary.

Organizers also are working with Nurse-Family Partnership, a Goodwill program that provides registered nurses to visit with at-risk moms who are having their first baby.

“We deliver the produce to NFP, and the nurses take the produce to the homes of their clients,” Saltzman said.

It’s a much-needed resource for ensuring the health of moms-to-be, says Paulette Maxie, director of operations for NFP’s Lake County region.

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“We found that we had mutual missions related to helping those who have little access to fresh, healthy foods, especially produce,” she said.

NFP teaches mothers about the importance of good nutrition and its impact on having a healthy pregnancy and baby, Maxie said.

“We also encourage breastfeeding, so we stress the need for a good diet, as it’s important to be able to provide the nutrients the baby needs and can receive through the mother’s breast milk,” she said.

By allowing nurses to take fresh produce to clients, it provides an opportunity for the pregnant women to try produce they have never had, as well as learn how to clean and prepare the vegetables.

“We’ve had tremendous success with our clients trying things they’ve never had before,” Maxie said. “One mom said she tried spinach salad, which she had never had before, and she really liked it. Everything for it, except the dressing, came from the Purdue garden.”

The Purdue Extension program has been so successful, Saltzman says other agencies are wanting to replicate this project at both the state and national levels. This includes NFP, who has expressed interest in initiating a similar project state-wide and possibly at a national level, she said.

Organizers have also expanded within Lake County, incorporating three other gardens into the project: Tri-Town Safety Village in Schererville, Buckley Homestead Living History Farm in Lowell and Trinity Baptist Church Garden in Gary.

Nikky Witkowski, who serves as the extension ag educator for Lake County, said many factors led to this model’s success, including thorough planning, quality materials, vigilant garden care and a simple operational system.

Involving pantry and agency participants in the process also was a key to success, Saltzman said.

“Not only did we provide them with surveys to get their feedback, but we also provided them with recipes for the produce via both our FoodLink QR code and printed recipes,” she said. “Once their surveys were returned to our office, we would then redirect our garden system activities in response to those surveys so we could respond to their true needs.”

Purdue Extension-Lake County will hold a public reception for the garden at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Extension office site, 2293 N. Main St., Crown Point.

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