Muncie Mayor promotes community gardens, city food council
By Emily Cox
A community garden spanned two city blocks near Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler’s childhood home on the south side. The robust plots—overflowing with tomatoes, squash and cucumbers—required lots of maintenance, which fell on Tyler and other neighborhood kids during the summer months. But he didn’t mind. He’s always had a taste for produce, and he’d sample his fair share “for his troubles.” Come fall, neighbors would gather together to can the last of the harvest.
“As a kid, I remember picking fruit from trees lining the streets on my way to Stanley’s or Finast or Weis, all grocery stores within walking distance. Everyone knew each other’s names, and we often knew the people, or at least the farms, from where our groceries came,” said Tyler, who became mayor of his hometown in 2012. “It’s difficult knowing that people—who once could walk to the grocery store—are now having to get on a bus or put a lot more thought into accessing food.”
Tyler cherishes past flavors of a more connected Muncie, but he is hopeful the resilient town will recover through the can-do attitude of its leaders, nonprofits and engaged citizenry. Food connects us all, Tyler said, and the city is growing fresh, creative ideas to increase access and encourage healthy choices. Among them, the city is exploring the creation of a food council to look holistically—beyond the borders of any one nonprofit or initiative—at food-related issues and opportunities within our community.
“Residents are increasingly concerned with their health and food, and we as a city government are looking for better ways to address the complex, interconnected issues facing this great city,” said Tyler, who graduated from Muncie Central High School. “We’re just seeing the beginning of what Muncie can and will do to realize a healthier more food-accessible city.”
A history of working the land
Muncie was a hub for community gardens and canning. During World War I, the city supported more than 7,000 war gardens to reduce pressure on the food supply. Families turned again to the soil during World War II, when “victory gardens” dotted the Muncie landscape. College co-eds tended 12 acres (or 168 gardens) at the Ball State Teachers College, and more than 30 families planted in plots at West Side Park.
As demands on families increased and chain grocers took root, neighborhood and personal gardens declined; however, the city maintains more than 11 community gardens at schools, churches and city parks. Organizations like Master Gardeners of Delaware County and the Urban Gardening Initiative are gaining ground and recruiting new members, particularly in the wake of three Marsh supermarket closings in spring 2017—leaving more than 64 percent of Muncie residents in a food desert (defined as living more than one mile from a grocery store).
Pulling out the weeds, planting hope
The closings, Tyler said, brought Muncie’s food-related issues—including a reliance on big chains—to the forefront. The family-owned, locally-sourced establishments are nearly gone, and neighborhood gardens and other support services are often inconsistent, given busy lifestyles and the uncertainty of who can pick what and how much. In addition, 17.5 percent of the population is impoverished, including 24 percent of Muncie kids are food insecure. The factors at play are plentiful and interconnected, Tyler said.
“If a child goes to bed hungry, they’ll wake up hungry, and it kills me to think of that. Having food pantries and providing hot meals for students after school is part of what Muncie is doing to help,” he added. “And I can tell you, the entire town will be happy to see these new grocery stores open their doors.”
The vacant stores will come alive in spring 2018 when Kroger will open two Pay Less supermarkets in the old Marsh buildings on Tillotson and the corner of McGalliard Road and Wheeling Avenue. Fresh Thyme Farmers Market—which aims to capture the feel of a weekly market within a typical grocery store format—is expected to open a location on McGalliard, near Chick-fil-A, this spring as well.
Tyler is hopeful that these hard times will bring the community together in ways he saw growing up, after the war. Sometimes it takes difficulty to see the best in people and places, he said. Muncie will persevere.
White Chicken Chili
- 1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2) cut into cubes
- 1/2 cup onion
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 15-ounce cans great northern beans, rinsed and drained (or your favorite white beans)
- 1 14.5-ounce can chicken broth
- 2 4-ounce cans chopped green chilies
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
Directions: In a large pan sauté chicken, onion, garlic powder in vegetable oil until chicken is cooked through. Add beans, broth, chilies and seasonings. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in sour cream and cream. Enjoy!