Standing beside his greenhouse off of Nebraska Avenue, David Johnson looked up at a towering church steeple — that of St. Anthony Church — and a construction crane.
“I was putting these trees in yesterday and two days before, and while I’m putting the trees in I look up here I see two options,” Mr. Johnson said. “The church steeple or the wrecking ball.”
"We need a viable plan whether they keep it or whether they tear it down," David D. Johnson said of St. Anthony Church.
Recently, elected officials and community stakeholders have rallied behind the church’s cause as the June demolition date for the 19th-century structure approaches. After repeated calls from residents and politicians alike, Bishop Daniel Thomas took a seat at the negotiating table. Inspectors are now assessing the structure to see whether it’s salvageable, but as negotiations continue, the church’s fate remains unknown.
Beyond the fear of losing a community landmark, Mr. Johnson and others worry that dust and debris from the demolition of the structure could pose a risk to the fresh fruits and vegetables growing just down the block near Johnson Produce Market.
Inside, bananas, watermelons, nuts, and other fruits and vegetables are sorted into baby-pink bins — making it easier for residents to grab a healthy snack on the go rather than a bag of potato chips at a local corner store, Mr. Johnson said. A few yards down the street, nestled between small houses in the inner-city neighborhood, grow rows of apple and cherry trees, seeds, and other crops.
When Mr. Johnson opened his market in 1988, he operated out of a truck on the corner. Now, his 10-acre enterprise grows fruit and vegetables at a farm near Toledo Express Airport and another in southern Georgia, in addition to his neighborhood gardens.
But the demolition of St. Anthony poses another health threat, to the nutrition of the neighborhood for which Mr. Johnson provides one of the sole sources of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“They consider this an island in a desert so far as produce is concerned,” Mr. Johnson said.
When Mr. Johnson moved to Pulaski Street in 1977 as a child, the neighborhood was majority Polish and German. But the area slowly changed — more African-American residents moved in and fewer people owned their homes.
The market is one of the only places with produce within walking distance, said Ida Stacker, store manager. Many residents do not have access to cars to drive to a place like Walmart or Kroger, she added.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a part of the country that lacks fresh fruit, vegetables, or other healthy whole foods.
Produce is for sale at Johnson Produce Market Friday in Toledo.
Miami University food and nutrition expert and dietitian Nancy Parkinson said low-income families are most vulnerable to the adverse health affects often associated with living in such deserts. With the rise of cheaper convenience items and fast food establishments that make 99-cent hamburgers an easy alternative to healthy options, households often give up fresh fruits and vegetables to stretch food dollars further, Ms. Parkinson said.
But the lack of healthy food for children can have long-term consequences: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, joint pain, not to mention potentional impact on mental acuteness, Ms. Parkinson said.
In Lucas County between 2014 and 2017, the percent of overweight and obese adults grew by 4 percent, up to 74 percent, according to a county health survey. The rate of obesity for African-Americans was 85 percent in 2017 — 11 percent higher than the county’s figure at large.
Toledo Lucas County Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski said grocery stores can often times be too far away for consumers in the area, and for those who make it to the markets, they may not know how to shop for and cook with the produce.
The health department’s Eat Fresh Live Well healthy corner store initiative brought fresh fruits and vegetables to shops across the city. But the pilot was abandoned after it ran out of funding from a three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health department project coordinator Tony Maziarz said.
The program proved unsustainable with the cost of a middleman to deliver the produce, among other financial hurdles. Now, the initiative only provides information on marketing, signage, a stand, and education materials, Mr. Maziarz said.
He said some of the corner stores can go to large markets like Kroger or Costco to purchase fruits and vegetables to sell in store. But they are ultimately responsible for getting the produce, for which they can make only a minimal profit.
Erma Blakely, owner of $1.50 Plus, a corner store not far from Johnson Produce Market that had received produce as part of the initiative, has lost touch with staff at the health department. Cabinets and bins beside an Eat Fresh Live Well sign inside the store were empty on an early June day, but Ms. Blakely said she would stock up on fresh produce soon.
In the winter and spring months, demand for produce is relatively slim. If business picks up, she said she would keep stocking produce, but this past year, most days at $1.50 Plus were quiet. People will occasionally come in for onions and she’ll offer some from the kitchen in the back of the store, usually free of charge, she added.
Ms. Blakely plans to go to larger markets to hopefully get a good deal on cabbage, onions, cucumbers, and bananas. Soon, she’ll move some of the packaged cakes off from areas toward the front of the store to make room.
Back at Johnson Produce Market, Mr. Johnson hauled two large peach saplings inside his store for a usual customer, Lewis Walker.
People stop in just to talk about this tree, so loaded with fresh peaches its branches often break, Mr. Johnson said. It’s not abnormal for truck drivers and others passing by to take a peek in his shop. Kids will run in to ask about some of his plants growing outside. Locals cooking spaghetti may run down to the market for a pepper, he said.
For the neighborhood around the St. Anthony, Johnson the produce market is a community landmark, said Mr. Johnson, much like the church itself.
“If they go here and tear this thing down...,” Mr. Johnson said, glancing at the gardens at risk around him, “we have fresh fruits and vegetables growing here every day.… People want to have ... a staple of stability.”
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