Jonathan Lawler of Hancock County-based Brandywine Creek Farms. Submitted photo
Jonathan Lawler of Hancock County-based Brandywine Creek Farms. Submitted photo
HANCOCK COUNTY — Just as it did for farmers across Hancock County and the Midwest, a rainy spring delayed the planting season and resulted in a smaller harvest for Jonathan Lawler.

But it’s been a bountiful year in plenty of other ways.

The produce grower just opened a grocery store in an Indianapolis food “desert” — a neighborhood without easy access to groceries. TV host Mike Rowe recently paid him a visit. And now one of the biggest food companies in the country just recognized him after awarding $100,000 to expand his agricultural efforts.

“I am beyond blessed,” Lawler said.

He called the country’s food system the safest and most efficient on the planet. But he’s working to make it better.

“We never set out to try to fix the food system, because in my opinion, it’s not really broken,” he said. “There’s just some access issues. Through agriculture and logistics, we can fix that.”

Lawler and his wife, Amanda, run Brandywine Creek Farms north of Greenfield. They aim to sell a third of their produce wholesale; sell another third to affordable access markets; and donate the remaining third.

Now they have a new outlet for their produce and other foods at 2828 E. 10th St. in Indianapolis, where shelves, coolers and freezers are filled with affordable groceries. With about 5,700 square feet of retail space, Healthy Harvest Market at Brookside got a new ceiling, floors, paint and furniture before opening on Small Business Saturday.

Lawler said he’d been wanting to put together a food hub for the past couple of years. He happened to be driving on 10th Street on the east side of Indianapolis a couple months ago when he saw the former Pogue’s Run Grocer building was available. After taking a tour, he realized it could not only serve as a food hub, but a retail grocery as well.

The building also has a kitchen, storage and cold storage along with office and training space.

Lawler said he was motivated to open the store because it’s in an area where stores offering fresh, affordable food are scarce.

“We need to make sure that people who live here have access to something,” Lawler said.

Running on a model that makes groceries more affordable for customers is no easy task.

“It takes a lot of work,” he said. “It takes a lot of negotiation.”

Healthy Harvest Market at Brookside is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Lawler expects the hours to change once the deli gets opens. The store will also be open later in the summer months, he added.

In the future, he plans to add a cafe that will allow customers to pay what they can and a grocery delivery service. He wants to hire workers who live in the neighborhood and open more stores across Indianapolis as well.

Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame and currently the host of “Returning the Favor,” a web series on Facebook that features people making differences in their communities, invited the public to a reveal at the new grocery store on Nov. 20 on his Facebook page.

Rowe spent time with Lawler last month learning about the work he does in Hancock County and Indianapolis.

“Mike Rowe off camera is an even more amazing human being than he is on camera,” Lawler said, adding there was a sincerity to the TV personality’s questions about his work. “He’s a genuinely curious person.”

Adding to Lawler’s success this year was Tyson Foods’ Dec. 3 announcement of him as one of the company’s three Meals that Matter Heroes from across the country. The distinction, which recognizes those dedicated to fighting hunger, acknowledged Lawler for his creation of urban farms in Indianapolis; educating the community on agriculture; providing fresh produce in food deserts; and donating more than 2 million pounds of produce in central Indiana since 2016.

Tyson Foods, which Food Processing listed as the second-largest food company in the United States in 2018, gave Lawler $100,000 to expand and maintain his farm’s operations.

“Like many farmers throughout the country, the spring flooding caused delays in planting and ultimately a smaller harvest,” Lawler said in a Tyson news release. “But more importantly, it meant those who struggle with hunger weren’t receiving the produce we would typically be donating. This investment by Tyson Foods helped save our season and will make a difference in thousands of lives in Indiana.”

Lawler told the Daily Reporter that the funds helped the grocery store open and will also help with efforts to grow more than 50 acres of produce in Cumberland just north of U.S. 40 on the Hancock County side of its border with Marion County.

John R. Tyson, chief sustainability officer for Tyson Foods, congratulated Lawler and the other two Meals that Matter Heroes in the release.

“After meeting our three heroes, I was inspired by their passion, creativity and determination to address hunger,” Tyson said. “All three saw a challenge, took action and are making a difference in their communities and across the country. We’re honored to support their work.”

The distinctions were part of a goal Tyson Foods announced in 2015 to pledge $50 million in cash and product donations by 2020 to fight hunger. Tyson exceeded that goal early by contributing more than $60 million for hunger relief in four years.

Lawler said Tyson Foods came out and filmed at his farm for a video available on the company’s YouTube page. He also visited the company’s operations in Arkansas and spent time with John Tyson, whose grandfather founded the food empire.

Brandywine Creek Farms has worked with Healthy365, an initiative that helps Hancock County form healthy habits and find healthy choices, on a program addressing food insecurity throughout the county. Through the partnership, the farm manned a truck that traveled to communities across the county to provide fresh, locally sourced produce at a reduced rate to those in financial need.

Amanda Everidge, director of community health improvement for Healthy365, said Lawler’s recent success is well deserved.

“Jonathan’s passion for changing the culture around food insecurity is contagious,” Everidge said. “He’s doing really good things, trying to be there for those who need it the most.”

Lawler said he’s grateful for Tyson’s contribution and recognition.

“It doesn’t mean we still don’t need help, because we do,” he said. “We need financial help more than ever. As our structure grows, it takes more to maintain that.”
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