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Greater Fort Wayne Area Regenerative Food System

An efficient balance sourcing concentrically local, regional & beyond while finding the sweet spot for decentralized / economies of scale.

Photo of Jain Young
11 30

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Heartland Communities, Inc.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Plowshares Food Hub: Local Food Distribution Coop; NAACP Branch 3049 President and County Council Member; Indiana Farmers' Union leadership and small farm advocate; Young Urban Homesteaders value-added food entrepreneurs; Lighthouse Affects: whose mission is to offer empathic solutions that allow children to express their emotions through art and music, and to be celebrated by their community; Northwest Indiana Youth Climate Council organizer; Arwen Kimmell, PhD Director, Insights & Analytics Kashi Company; Many other voices are included from the local food system work space.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://stewardsofheartlandcommunities.wordpress.com/home/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Fort Wayne

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

A region with Fort Wayne, Indiana at the center with a 50 mile radius. This covers over 20500 km^2 and includes part of Michigan & Ohio.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Stewards of Heartland work to shape the community from atop the highest altitude in the county. Most people in this flatland do not realize there is a hill overlooking downtown Fort Wayne, confluence of three rivers where Fort Wayne was founded. A walk or bicycle up High Street or Runnion Avenue will realize the climb. Hungry Hill, as it was called during the flood of 1913, and the confluence define the Summit City; the continental divide between the Great Lakes watershed and the Wabash Valley which meanders south through the Ohio river and beyond to the Gulf of Mexico.

From the Summit, a hopeful vision of change will transform a culture, an environment, and an economy to life-nourishing systems in local food and other basic needs. We nurture cooperative enterprises for voice and power in circles of workers whose hands bring nourishment from the soil to the community, production from raw materials to market, skilled and compassionate citizens from birth to strength.

We connect with intersecting communities to serve the people, the water and the land. One NGO we fostered repairs stream banks along the Maumee River and her tributaries, the largest waterway entering Lake Erie. One partner organizes non-union workers to gain voice and power in the workplace and community through a new approach to representation. Many of those workers are historically silenced, are refugees or experience language barriers.

A family legacy of local food system change, our current work is in regenerative local food systems. That legacy stands as a 44 year-old natural food cooperative, one of the few surviving from the 1970s that spearheaded and defined the natural-organic sector. Thriving at $4M/ year, even in the current of big box national usurpers which have not diminishing the value of trust and quality in the interests of the consumer and farmer. Now we create regenerative local distribution and processing within resilient life-affirming Heartland Communities.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The divide between major watersheds, the region’s challenge is often managing too much water. The river valley to Lake Erie is a vast network of tiled fields; former wetlands that were once the Great Black Swamp. To the west and south, thousands of acres of corn and soy fields grow on former high and dry oak savannah. Both were considered richest black soil in the land, but the three to six foot deep top soil has eroded down to the underlying clay nearly everywhere. That clay is what held water in the wetland swamp from draining, and still holds thousands of glacial lakes fed by natural springs sprinkled across the countryside.

This fertile paradise and the transport utility of rivers in every direction attracted migrants to settle here over centuries. Rural areas have large Amish farming settlements. Following the railroad expansion, other Germans came to establish centers of industry as many other European migrants came to work. After the Civil War, African-Americans migrated from the South to seek a new future. A Welcoming City, refugees who speak over 200 languages have settled here in the last quarter century, including the largest Burmese population in the world outside of Myanmar. Diversity is celebrated in cultural festivals where cultural traditions are kept alive and ethnic foods are savored.

Both rural and urban communities are sliding into higher or lower income sectors. The exodus of manufacturing, and industrialization of agriculture has left families with fewer options and less wealth. Recent A.L.I.C.E. studies, an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, focus on low-wage workers, people who work one or more low-wage jobs and struggle to pay basic living expenses, not including debt. Adding the 14% of households in Allen County who are elderly, disabled or impoverished and not working, to the working poor, it becomes a full 36% of households living in crisis, with rural towns and townships hovering between 35% and 45%. In the most populated Wayne Township as high as a mind-boggling 56% of households. If you include debt, households could be 65% who are simply not making it in this economy.

A related trend is the abandonment of inner urban and small rural communities by grocery stores, leaving many “food deserts” where the only available food is from convenience stores that offer no fresh food, and people are left to eat processed “junk food” as the source of nutrients. The health effects are well-documented diseases of poor nutrition, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, and so forth. Indiana has the highest infant mortality in the country, with our largest food desert suffering the highest in the state.

With much of the landscape beholden to Big Ag, and Purdue University the epicenter of inventions of glyphosate and genetic modification, Indiana was the first state to be saturated with agrochemicals. Without federal subsidy, these farms would not be financially sustainable. In our region, Walmart owns the largest dairy processing plant in the state and small dairy farms are going under. The average age of farmers is now at 70 years as incoming generations seek employment off the farm.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

20500

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

783400

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Environment

Challenges 2020

  • Mono-cropping with agrochemicals
  • Nutrient load killing Lake Erie
  • CAFO manure lagoons entering waterways
  • Too much, bad timing or too little rain for abundant production

In 2050

  • Flashy weather events and flooding
  • General Water level rise
  • The ratio of land to water will be different affecting travel, agriculture and land use
  • Failed sewer / septic systems must give way to anaerobic digestion bio-gas systems
  • Pests and weeds will that are resistant to chemicals must be mitigated by natural predators and repellants
  • Livestock must be grazed on prairie, foraged in woodlands, or manure must be processed in anaerobic digesters to produce methane fuel

Diets

Challenges 2020

  • Grain and carb based diets creating health epidemics
  • Availability of fresh wholesome food
  • Cheap affordable food is killing us
  • Historic redlining has created food apartheid
  • Quality animal proteins and fats, organic fresh produce are not affordable

In 2050

  • Efficient land use to provide healthful diets and nutrients for all
  • Hyper-local provision of everyday quality food within neighborhoods
  • Regional provision of foods that are better grow with economies of scale as well as storage and regional distribution
  • Imported foods from other climates and in need of long transport as well as regionally produced food to trade/ export

Economics

Challenges 2020

  • Large percent of families unable to pay for basic needs,
  • Health care is unaffordable and ineffective
  • Capital leakage siphons off community wealth with 90% of the food dollar leaving the state
  • Debt-based economy keeps most of the people enslaved to interest payments with little hope of accumulating wealth
  • Low wages and dead-end jobs with no future

In 2050

  • Community wealth-building
  • Wellness and preventive health care including optimal nutrition
  • Food cost and wages of food workers
  • Unpaid work removes time available for paid work

Culture

Challenges 2020

  • Language barriers
  • Monopsonies in labor market make non-English speakers vulnerable
  • Isolation from larger community by work shift, mandatory overtime and at-will employment = forced labor
  • Political culture of outrage, blame, separatism, hate on all “sides”

In 2050

  • Harnessing diverse perspectives, traditions for better solutions
  • Opportunities for cultural exposure, understanding, appreciation
  • How to ensure worker agency and cooperation among cultures

Technology

Challenges 2020

  • Food tech for long distance and long storage of highly perishable foods result in less nutrients
  • Access to equipment for production tech / economies of scale in high nutrient foods

In 2050

  • Clean, smart tech for efficient food production
  • Efficient transport of people and goods within the region and

Policy

Challenges 2020

  • Federal: Huge subsidies for Big Ag, fossil fuels, for-profit medical insurance
  • Industry-driven barriers to entry in food manufacturing
  • Local: barriers to urban agriculture in zoning, water and land access

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

In the next 30 years, people will transform food production by necessity. Our region is wet, and the water will have its way in the end. The Great Black Swamp will reclaim the wetlands by force of nature. A city built in a river valley will concede. Where stormwater insists it belongs developed land is defined as new 100-year flood plains and lowlands. One third of homeowners combating basement sewer back-ups will eventually give up and buildings will be removed. Once the Swamp has returned and toxic tanks and failing septic/sewer infrastructure have been removed, the tainted land will be remediated.

Farms for water rich crops such as rice, celery and cranberries will be made along wetland edges. Fields that flood seasonally will grow new livestock like fish, shrimp and crayfish via controlled flooding and draining.

The old system of monocrop ag, and forcing yield from depleted soil, has lead to the mass production and consumption of grain based non-foods. As families begin to understand the cost these systems and behaviors have had on our health and future, these practices become known as unsustainable. At that point society will let go of these outdated practices and MidAmerican culture will begin to transform. Rather than miles of corn and soy to fatten livestock in indoor factories, fields will be revitalized, and livestock graze in nutrient dense silvopasture. Hemp will replace much of the row crops, for food, fuel, fiber and polycarbons; while building and cleaning the soil. Farms will diversify to meet peoples need for a vegetable and fruit abundant diet with the higher quality animal proteins. Vegetable and fruit crops and livestock that benefit from economies of scale will be produced regionally and abundantly for export.

People displaced in flooded urban and rural areas, will move to satellite villages around the City in high and dry areas. Efficient public transport will connect them to each other and the now-smaller City, moving people and goods by electric rail or hyper-loop. Each village will offer its own cultural palette and diversity, inviting festivals, celebrations and cuisine. They will develop guilds of master craftspeople and industry specialties, with schools and apprenticeships for new worker entry. Worker-owned training and production centers will ensure each new worker has a place and a living to support his/her self. Other cooperatives will meet consumer needs for education, healthcare, child care, and food preparation.

Land around the village will produce much of what the people there eat, with four-season, water efficient indoor operations and poultry yards producing hyper-local supplies of greens, herbs, veggies, eggs, fish and chicken protein. The abundance and accessibility relieves historic patterns of diet induced disease. The challenge of human and animal waste that caused algal overgrowth and dead zones in lakes and rivers will be captured in anaerobic digesters to produce fuel and compost for non-food crops.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Once Northeast Indiana restabilized from the rising water table, and adapted to the new normal community leaders started a dialogue on making the area more resilient to natural disasters or climate shift.


The insight and strategy gained was three fold:


  1. Insufficient food during the disaster made it clear the top priority for the region was local food production to ensure the communities needs are met.
  2. Powerful leadership exhibited by areas youth prevented scared people and a tense situation from devolving into crisis. This became the key turning point that held the region together. Sparking a focus on incentives based early life education and leadership training.
  3. Build with intention. Instead of creating a sprawling urban landscape, mindfully craft a dense, integrated, three-dimensional cityscape which supports diversified activities, combining function and activities within urban space, and sustaining human culture and environmental balance. 


Out of this arose our first Cultural Community Center, Plowshares Food-Hub & Co-Packing Center, people could purchase, preserve, or purvey quality local food, learn food safety, enjoy a communal meal, or even rest and engage in recreation activities with a friend.

This was the first of many crucial spaces within the city to become shared, common spaces – accessible and respected by all, thriving with socialization, confrontation and growth. 

Today, April 23, 2050 community meals are a regular feature at the seven centers that serve as “public” spaces where education, commerce and neighbors come together. This focus on education begins with on-site child care for the children of members who are working or attending an event. The industry-specific education provided by each center enhances the impact of industry experts and newcomers alike. 

Maximizing the utility of our community spaces, starting leadership training young, and incentivizing people to grow as individuals has lead to an era of thriving progress and culture.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Mirra was a morning person by nature and woke before dawn. She felt fresh for adventure after a sunrise meditation on the rooftop of her cluster building in the far edge of Camelot Place cooperative community housing. On the way through the Cultural Community Center she enjoyed a nourishing breakfast with her children, dropped them off to classes and Family Care cooperatives, and picked up her lunch package on the way to board the hyperloop train. On the way to work in the orchards, Mirra opened her device to scan the news.

NEWS RELEASE: 2050 - Fort Wayne, Indiana's own Plowshares Food Hub is celebrating the grand opening of their new facility on Saturday. Replacing the original community center that first opened in 2020, the updated facility still provides Fort Wayne's food producing community with space to gather, cook, educate, and feed its citizens. However now, the updated center features an expanded 20 acre permaculture food forest, four commercial grade kitchens designed to provide ample space for small business startups, a commercial food processing/canning/bottling facility, and of course all of the open market stalls, recreational space, family care and respite wings, classrooms and training areas that our local Cultural Community Centers have always offered.

Plowshares, launching back in early 2019, was the first of Fort Wayne's seven Cultural Community Centers to open. At the time, Hoosiers were interested in retaining local capital, foods and talent. Plowshares provided the local food producing community with an enthusiastic market by educating and involving the public in all aspects of restorative food culture. Supporting both active and potential food producers, it cultivated a community of experts on food; growing, processing, safety, etc. who were not only interested in expanding the market for local produce but in transforming Fort Wayne's relationship with the land and the people who live on it. While the idea had some support early on, it was only after the devastating floods of 2021 that the full potential of the project was embraced. As climate change transformed so much of NE Indiana’s once rich farmland into soggy plots of sewage-strewn toxic soil, alternatives were needed and Plowshares stepped in, providing safely sourced and processed foods to residents in need and helping devastated farmers assess and recover from their losses. They quickly became a hub of community life for Fort Wayne residents involved or interested in the various ways to grow, preserve and handle food safely.

The original Plowshares center began offering community meals in late 2021 as a way to strengthen and support the community they served. Today, community meals and events are a regular feature at each of the seven centers which serve as public spaces where education, commerce and neighbors come together. This focus on education begins with on-site infant and child care for the children of members who are working or attending an event. The industry-specific education, training and outreach activities provided by each center enhance and create personal and professional connections for industry experts and newcomers alike.

Following the success of the Plowshares center with its focus on food systems, the six other centers were each designed to focus on a specific area of interest to our local community. Due to the increasing need for safely sourced foods, the original Plowshares community split into two separate centers. While Plowshares continues to focus on food processing, safety and preservation the food growing operations moved into the Tun Oo Farm Center. With this expansion, Indiana's farmers and home gardeners were encouraged to learn from our large refugee community about global techniques for feeding and working the soil. 


The other six Cultural Community Centers are:

Tom Lewandowski Peoples’ Center for Economic Justice

Chuck Surack Thunderdome & Sound Industry Skills Center

Heartland Restorative Economic Development & Culture Center

Sheila Curry Campbell NAACP Center for Environmental Justice

Radiance Mimi Burns Therapeutic Empowerment & Self Love Center


Jain Young, founder of the original Plowshares food hub, will be cutting the ribbon at Saturday’s celebration. She remembers the early days of the CCC project as being life-changing for a community in crisis. “People were hungry and desperate, they needed food but they also needed a way to connect with their neighbors, to retrain for new careers in a changing world, and to share resources that were becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. We already had the distribution network and the online presence. We were in the right place at the right time to help Fort Wayne rebuild.”As Fort Wayne’s residents became more familiar with Plowshares’ unique offerings, they quickly decided to develop and open more CCCs for different industries; both for general human needs - like the Radiance Mimi Burns Center for Personal Empowerment and Self Love, and for local specialties like the Sweetwater Center for Sound Technology. Graduates of the Plowshares program have gone on to careers in agriculture and logistics, while the graduates of the Sound program are highly sought by venues and tours requiring sound technicians. Fort Wayne is recognized as a leader in nearly every industry represented by a CCC. Community leaders from around the world have come to Indiana to experience and adapt the success of regional program for their own locations.

***

Mirra’s grandparents had been organizers in the changing times of the rising water. They were early adopters in the local currency stimulus program that helped the community self-organize, acquire the skills they would need, and redefine the value of work, security, and wealth. Those early years were both chaotic and inspiring as the food supply and transport system washed away and new ways emerged to supply new kinds of demand. The people who broke free of crippling anxiety to come forward in collaboration to take leadership in the change were grateful for the stimulus as a guide and path to a stable community where few people slipped through the cracks and everyone had a guide and incentives moving forward. She would gather her family and transport their grandparents from the Elder’s Nest to the dedication of the new Plowshares Community Center for the ribbon cutting.

She stepped off the train with a few dozen other orchard technicians reporting in for the early shift. They attended their department Circle meeting for the day’s operations goals and task assignments. Weather reports were announced and safety precautions for the day’s tasks reviewed before the teams headed out to the orchards. This time of year the trees were at peak flower, and the harmonic light beam technology had to be applied with care to disrupt the egg cycle of the pests and prevent fungi that would blemish and blight the fruit.

Before shift end, Mirra attended two more Circle meetings: one with her department and one as a representative to the Operations Leadership Circle. She reported the quality and quantity of blossoms on the trees, forecasting the yield for that autumn. Other members reported demand forecasts for the next decade, and preliminary discussions outlined new planting strategy and grafting requirements.

The team left together and strolled through the commons of the Cultural Center in Orchard Village. Cultural workers and volunteers from the Youth Corps were preparing the hall for the annual Apple Blossom Festival that would take place later in the week. Musicians rehearsed and performed sound check while tables were set with centerpieces and gift baskets.

At the far end of the Commons, the team joined other friends and coworkers for an after-work beverage and dinner. Mirra’s spouse had collected the children and came to join the social time and entertainment before returning in the evening train to Camelot Place.

After the children were settled for the night, she relaxed on the balcony of the Pod and thought again about the news of the new Community Center opening celebration. She reflected on her parent’s generation who rode out the changing times toward the recent prosperity and stability. Mirra’s own children enjoyed health and opportunity that Mirra’s parents had not known, and that Mirra herself had to help her parents carve out of the chaos. But oh, what a worthwhile labor of love it was to see her children reach for their potential. Her small family was held up by the support of a community whose labor directly resulted in prosperity without exploitation or lack. Tending the food supply of the region with an abundant crop they exported to places that would not be suitable for apple production, Mirra’s work brought new resources into the community.

Gentle rain began to fall, bringing Mirra back to the present from her grateful reverie. She glanced at the clouds moving in to cover the stars shining over Camelot Place and thanked the luck that she was part of a community that could change the food system, economy and culture  in little more than a generation.


How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • word-of-mouth

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This is extraordinary! It should be a model for many cities across America. Great work!

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