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Wave of closures in NWI has raised concerns about food, pharmacy deserts
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Murder charges filed against Merrillville man after family fight ends in shooting
MERRILLVILLE — Police have secured murder charges against a 35-year-old in connection with Tuesday’s double homicide that killed a mother and son.
Robert Stewart, of Merrillville, was charged Thursday with two counts of murder — along with enhancements for using a gun during the crime — in the shooting deaths of Ryan Halbe, 27, and his mother, Candy Halbe, 55, in the 2400 block of West 61st Place, Lake Criminal Court records show.
Police responded at about 9:20 p.m. Tuesday to the home for a report of two people shot. Around the same time, a Crown Point K-9 officer used a police dog to track down Stewart hiding blocks away in a shed.
In an interview with police, the suspect’s girlfriend told police Stewart lives with the family at Candy Halbe’s 61st Place home. She said Stewart has “issues with abusing alcohol” and “when he drinks, he gets violent,” according to court records.
The woman said while out running errands with Stewart and her young son, she questioned Stewart about his drinking, but he denied it, records show. When they returned home, a family argument ensued after an intoxicated Stewart allegedly “forcefully grabbed” and “pushed aside” a young child in the home.
Shortly after Candy Halbe and Stewart’s girlfriend began arguing with him in the basement, Ryan Halbe joined them and grabbed Stewart by the shoulder, prompting Stewart to grab a gun from his waistband, court records show.
The feud erupted in gunfire after Ryan Halbe said to Stewart, “Why you waving a gun around? I don’t want to kick your (expletive).”
As Stewart fled the home, Ryan Halbe bled out onto the floor, records show.
“Dad, I’m dying,” he said, as his mother, Candy Halbe, lay on a nearby mattress, bleeding from a gunshot wound to her stomach.
Ryan Halbe died late Tuesday at Methodist Hospitals Southlake Campus in Merrillville. Candy Halbe died early Thursday at Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus in Gary.
Witnesses at the scene recall hearing three gunshots and saw Stewart fleeing the home with a gun. A person in the home allegedly had purchased the weapon for Stewart.
A K-9 officer used a police dog to track Stewart’s footprints in the snow to a shed in the 5700 block of Roosevelt Place. An officer located a .45 caliber Springfield XD weapon to the right of the footprints and a missing magazine about 15 feet away.
Upon arrival at the shed, a police dog was employed to apprehend Stewart because he refused to comply with commands to show his hands, step out of the shed and get to the ground, the affidavit stated.
Stewart was interviewed Thursday morning by police, records show. He told police he doesn’t remember much about the night, and that he blacks out often when he drinks.
He told police he “did not recall much until being at home that night, possibly getting into an argument (with his girlfriend), being downstairs and getting into a tussle with Ryan,” and then running and hopping fences, the affidavit stated.
He added he remembered “hearing gunshots but did not recall pulling out a gun, pointing a gun, or shooting Ryan and Candy (Halbe),” records show.
Stewart is in custody. An initial court appearance was not yet scheduled as of Thursday.
Affidavit: 4-year-old boy was watching cartoons the night he was shot and killed allegedly by his uncle in East Chicago
EAST CHICAGO — Four-year-old Garrion Glover Jr. was watching cartoons in his mother’s living room the same night he was allegedly shot and killed by his uncle, newly unsealed court records show.
Lamario E. Delgado-Gonzalez, 23, was taken into custody Dec. 17 in Normal, Illinois, in connection with the May 11 death of Garrion at the boy’s Indiana Harbor section apartment, East Chicago police said.
Delgado-Gonzalez was extradited Dec. 21 to Lake County and is now in custody at the Lake County Jail on charges of murder, neglect of a dependent resulting in death and reckless homicide, court records show.
Delgado-Gonzalez was charged in October, but the court records were sealed until Delgado-Gonzalez's arrest.
The defendant is jailed without bond. A formal court appearance has not yet been scheduled, according to court records.
In interviews with police, Delgado-Gonzalez denied owning a weapon or having any involvement in Garrion’s death, but Instagram photos from his account show the 23-year-old sitting on the couch and holding a gun in that very apartment, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in the case.
Mother: Garrion did not shoot himself
Relatives told police after Garrion’s death the boy must have found a weapon in his apartment and accidentally shot himself, but the Lake County coroner's office later ruled his death a homicide and the investigation continued.
East Chicago police said in June they had been suspicious about inconsistent statements given during the investigation into Garrion’s death. The boy suffered a gunshot wound to the neck.
Police were dispatched May 11 to the 3500 block of Guthrie Street for a report of an assault with firearm. Garrion’s mother said she was awakened by a noise in the living room, where Garrion had been watching television and Delgado-Gonzalez had allegedly been sleeping on the couch.
The child was found lying on the floor on his back, bleeding from the mouth, not far from the couch where Delgado-Gonzalez had been sleeping, court records show. When the mother’s boyfriend tried to wake Garrion up, Delgado-Gonzalez allegedly stirred awake and asked what happened.
Garrion’s mother told police she did not believe her son could have shot himself.
Police located a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun on a pile of clothes across from the couch. A spent shell casing was found stuck in the gun.
A computer check showed the weapon used was registered to a person out of South Bend. Police called the person’s guardian and she said the gun had been missing for about three years, but no one reported it stolen.
The boy’s mother told police Garrion “had never touched a real gun” and that she did not allow weapons in her house, according to court records.
Police: Uncle said he was asleep, high
Asked about that night, Delgado-Gonzalez initially told police in an interview he had been in “a (marijuana) coma,” and offered no explanation as to why there was a bullet hole in the couch where he was sleeping, court records show.
No casings or bullets were recovered from Garrion’s body or during a search of the residence, but the couch where Delgado-Gonzalez had been sleeping had damage to the left arm rest consistent with a bullet ricochet.
A red blood smear was located on the right side back cushion of the couch, court records show. A second blood smear was found on the carpet in front of the couch closest to the damaged armrest.
Garrion’s body was found not far from the couch.
There was no indication that a projectile hit the floor where the blood stain was located, and the only indication of a trajectory of the bullet is the damaged left arm rest of the couch.
Based on the wound tract and damage to Garrion's right cheek, the weapon “would have been held against his right cheek in a downward position,” the affidavit stated.
Instagram photos discredit uncle's claim
Delgado-Gonzalez submitted to a gun residue test, which was positive, and then told police he would only talk with an attorney present, according to court records.
Delgado-Gonzalez allegedly later agreed to be interviewed without his attorney, but still denied owning a gun despite police showing him Instagram photos of him holding a gun in that same apartment. A stress test conducted on Delgado-Gonzalez “showed deception,” court records show.
Bloomington, Illinois, police said Delgado-Gonzalez was arrested Dec. 17 in Normal and booked into the McLean County Jail about 3 a.m., The (Bloomington) Pantagraph reported. The Normal Police Department, the U.S. Marshals Violent Fugitive Task Force and K-9 units from Bloomington and Normal assisted in the arrest.
The boy's uncle had been living there the past month, the mother said.
Crime scene photos taken that night show cartoons were playing on the television.
Hammond police find 32-year-old man with gunshot wound to head in parked vehicle
HAMMOND — Police found a man with a gunshot wound to the head late Tuesday after they were called to the city's Hessville neighborhood, a spokesman said.
Hammond police were dispatched about 9:25 p.m. to the 6400 block of Kennedy Avenue for a report of shots fired, Lt. Steve Kellogg said.
Officers found the man in a silver vehicle parked in front of an apartment. The vehicle's windshield and driver's side door were damaged by gunfire.
The 32-year-old Hammond man appeared to have a gunshot wound to the head, Kellogg said.
A Hammond Fire Department ambulance crew took the man to a local hospital, where he was in stable condition Wednesday morning, police said.
Anyone with information is asked to call Detective Sgt. Shawn Ford at 219-852-2998.
Plane lost landing gear, wing as it slid through fences, across highway in early morning crash in Michigan City
An attempt by a pilot of a CJ2 small business jet to abort a landing early Wednesday morning at the Michigan City Municipal Airport ended abruptly.
On its way, the plane crashed through a fence and guardrail and skidded across a four-lane highway, losing a wing and its landing gear.
The pilot of the plane and a passenger suffered minor injuries, but were taken to a hospital as a precaution and later released, said Jessica Ward, airport manager. The names of the two individuals involved in the crash were not released pending the conclusion of a Federal Aviation Administration investigation, according to Michigan City police.
The pilot was landing and then made a decision to abort, Sgt. Chris Yagelski said in a news release. When the pilot tried to take off again, there was not enough room left on the runway.
According to FAA records, the plane is owned by Van E Aviation LLC in care of Land O'Frost Inc. According to the company's website, Land O'Frost is a third-generation, family-owned business based in Munster.
The plane took off from DuPage (Illinois) Airport west of Chicago at 6:22 a.m. Twenty-two minutes later, it arrived in Michigan City, according to FAA records.
It was a rough landing, though, with the pilot telling officials they overshot the runway, said Tony Drzewiecki, public information officer for the Michigan City Fire Department.
Ward said the plane, which could seat about six passengers, came in from the north and touched down on the 4,100-foot-long runway. The plane was unable to stop on time, went off the end of the runway and crashed through a 10-foot-high section of metal fence marking the southern perimeter of the airport property along U.S. 20, about a quarter mile west of Interstate 94.
Ward said the plane also took out a metal guardrail a few feet behind the fence and crossed all four lanes of U.S. 20 before coming to rest 300 yards to the south in an open field.
According to Michigan City police, the plane sustained extensive damage including a lost wing and landing gear.
"With that plane skidding across the highway, we're lucky there wasn't any traffic coming from either direction," Drzewiecki said.
Ward said the runway had no ice on it, had been plowed the previous evening and had just a slight dusting of snow when the crash occurred.
She said the pilot's destination was Michigan City.
"I'm just glad everybody is OK," Ward said.
Ward said about 22 small aircraft use the airport each week during the winter compared to roughly 24 per day the rest of the year.
Land O'Frost provided storage for people's meats when founded on Chicago's South Side in 1941. In 1952, the company began producing sliced beef along with frozen meat pies and TV dinners.
In 1969, it opened its first lunchmeat processing plant in Lansing. Another processing plant opened in 2007 in Madisonville, Kentucky. The headquarters relocated to Munster in 2014.
According to the company website, Land O'Frost has more than 1,000 employees at three locations and has grown from a regional to a national brand.