A chance encounter by a local physician with a man asking for money for food on the street led to the creation of a food and diaper pantry that opened its doors this week to serve community members in need.

The Fresh Start Market and Diaper Pantry at 5454 Hohman Avenue in Hammond officially opened Wednesday following a blessing and dedication Oct. 7.

The Fresh Start Market is a healthy food bodega where those in need can shop free of charge. The Diaper Pantry, located adjacent to the Fresh Start Market, provides diapers, wipes and other essentials for free to parents in need.

“Franciscan Health is looking forward to continuing to serve the community and its needs in the Hammond area and beyond with our food bodega and the diaper pantry,” said Ibrahim Zabaneh, MD, vice president of medical affairs for Franciscan Health Dyer, Hammond and Munster.

Franciscan Health Foundation Executive Director Rick Peltier said 20% of children in Lake County are food insecure and one in three are diaper insecure, making the services vital to the health and well-being of local residents.

“All of those needs can be provided here with a one stop shop in Northwest Indiana,” Peltier said.

The market was first envisioned by Dr. Zabaneh, who was moved by an encounter with a man on the street who asked him for money to purchase food for himself and his young son.

Dr. Zabaneh bought the family a meal, but he knew that wouldn’t help them long-term. He set out to work with his colleagues at Franciscan Health and the Franciscan Health Foundation to create a more lasting solution.

The Franciscan Health Foundation partnered with the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana to create a three-phase program to help address food insecurity throughout Northwest Indiana.

Phase I of the project was the mobile markets, which provide food to those in need with drive-through events at Franciscan Health hospitals throughout the year. Since July 2021, the Mobile Food Market has served 5,723 people in Hammond alone.

Phase II is the Fresh Start Market, which in addition to supplying food, works to get to the root of food insecurity, the underlying causes and health implications with education, nutrition and recipes.

“They can shop in the market for free and in conversation, we learn more about them and their needs, and how we can provide additional help with these and other programs we offer,” Peltier said.

Phase III will be a food prescription program, which allows low-income patients and their families to access food they need to meet their particular health needs. Old National Bank has pledged $20,000 to support the food prescription program.

“It takes a team to be able to accomplish what we’ve been able to do, so far, for our Food Insecurity Program, partners like the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, led by Victor Garcia, top supporters Tom Sourlis and Susan Eleuterio and Dr. Zabaneh who had the vision from day one to help those who are food insecure,” Peltier said. “This team has made an incredible difference.”

Victor Garcia, CEO of the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, said when he started in the role in 2019, one of the first meetings he had was with leadership from the Franciscan Health Foundation and the team from Franciscan Health’s Community Health Improvement program to discuss creating their partnership.

“I am so proud that Dr. Zabaneh, Rick and the team at Franciscan Health have put together what the community needs,” Garcia said. “That we’re able to look at food outcomes and how food can be a part of intervention and looking at the root causes of poverty and providing support is inspiring. Thank you for being leaders and for being so focused on what our community needs.”

The Fresh Start Market and Diaper Pantry are built upon years of partnerships with regional, state and national grantors, as well as long-time supporters of the Franciscan Health Foundation and Franciscan Health employees.

In 2022, the Indiana Department of Health added more than $270,000 in grants for Franciscan Health food insecurity projects in Lake County, including the Fresh Start Market, backpacks of healthy food for students in Hammond and the Food Prescription project planned for Phase III. 

The Fresh Start Market is also supported by a $25,000 grant from the national No Kid Hungry campaign. 

The Indiana Department of Health has invested $1.6 million since 2018 in the Franciscan Health Foundation’s Prenatal Assistance Program (PAP) in Lake County.

Geminus Community Partners provided $10,000 in seed money for the development of the Diaper Pantry in 2021 and an additional $8,000 in 2022.

Anyone interested in donating to the Franciscan Health Foundation to support the Fresh Start Market may do so online by contributing to the Food Insecurity Fund at this link.

Donations to support the Diaper Pantry through the Franciscan Health Foundation’s Prenatal Assistance program can be made online at this link.

More information on how to contribute to support the Fresh Start Market and Diaper Pantry is available at FranciscanHealthFoundation.org or by calling the Franciscan Health Foundation at (219) 661-3401. 

The Fresh Start Market food pantry is located at 5454 Hohman Ave. in Hammond at the Women’s Specialty and Dialysis Center Entrance. The market is open the second Wednesday of the month from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and the fourth Wednesday of the month from 3 to 6 p.m. A valid photo ID is required for entry.

The Diaper Pantry allows eligible Lake County families to obtain free diapers and wipes. Those interested in the program can call 1-877-PRE-NATAL to register for the program and schedule an appointment.

For more information on the Fresh Start Market and Diaper Pantry, call (219) 407-6948.