In the heart of Fort Wayne’s south side, an old fire station has become a food oasis of sorts for local residents.
Located at 2518 Winter Street, the Johnnie Mae Farm Stand has been selling fresh produce and seeds to folks living in the Renaissance Pointe neighborhood since the building was renovated in 2015.
The building and land are owned by the city of Fort Wayne, and is actually the old city fire station No. 9, a station that was decommissioned in the 1950s, according to stand Manager Laura Crawford, who has been working at the business since last summer.
“The city has other programs like this,” Crawford said, “but they wanted a more predictable way to give out produce in this area.”
The stand is open throughout the summer on Friday evenings from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and offers a wide variety of herbs, seeds, and veggies. Food for sale includes red and green peppers, tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, collard greens, cherry tomatoes, radishes, herbs, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, peas, carrots, potatoes, okra, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, lettuce, beets, garlic, spinach, onions, and eggplant.
Cost of the items varies from under a $1 to slightly more, but food stamps are accepted.
Crawford said one of the stand’s aims is to offer items in high demand in the southern neighborhood. “We really wanted to offer items that are ethnically and culturally desired here,” she said. “Stuff like zucchini, collard greens, mustard greens, and green tomatoes.”
“In fact, we sell more green tomatoes here than red ones,” Crawford noted with a laugh.
The city spent about $500,000 in community development funds to renovate the building and the .75 acres property behind it, according to stand worker, Terri Theisen, who’s been working at the location for about 1.5 years.
Using that money, the city refurbished the building and the grounds behind it to grow produce with a large, outdoor garden patch and an enclosed hoop house. A hoop house is basically just a greenhouse – providing a shelter for growing crops – without a heat source.
In addition to the farm stand, the building hosts something called POP (Power of Produce) Club for youngsters ages two to 18. Held on July 12, 19, 26, and August 2, 9, and 16 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. The club allows kids to take part in a variety of fun activities and earn “market dollars” they can then spend on the store’s produce.
The stand also offers a healthy cooking class sponsored by the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation called Our HEALing Kitchen. The class meets for eight weeks in July and August, and teaches people how to cook and prepare healthy meals using the produce they get at the farm stand.
The location also offers education programs, including pop-ups by the Allen County Library, a program sponsored by the local YMCA called Y on the Fly, and programs done by the local 4H Gardening Club.
In addition, the building has a state-of-the-art, commercial-grade kitchen that is available for use by community groups.
The stand is named in honor of Johnnie Mae White, a long-time community activist who offered local folks nutritional classes, as well as providing handouts to residents on healthy living and eating. White passed away in 2001.
Crawford, a 27-year-old Extension Educator with Purdue Fort Wayne, noted the stand is particularly crucial because it’s located in the middle of what’s known as a “food desert,” which is an economically-depressed area where residents either can’t find, or can’t afford healthy alternatives to quick and cheaper junk food.
“This neighborhood is considered a food desert,” Crawford said, “so it’s very important to have produce easily available for these residents. To be able to offer this for these people is a really great service.”
Thiessen noted, however, that the stand’s mission is about more than just offering fresh fruit and veggies.
“We wanted to make this more than just a farm stand,” Thiesen said. “We want this to be about community, and we want people to feel like they have ownership over this place.”