Local political leaders, citizens and many in the faith community are all employing different tactics to fight two related problems: hunger and food deserts.
According to the online community information system SAVI, a program of the Polis Center at IUPUI, 200,000 Indianapolis residents live in food deserts, or low-income areas that struggle with access to healthy foods. Urban farmers, the Indianapolis City-County Council and Faith, Hope and Love Community Inc. are working to make healthy food accessible in unique ways.
Urban farmers took the issue of food deserts into their own hands by growing produce for the community. Several Black-owned urban gardens —Lawrence Community Gardens, Elephant Gardens, Mother Loves Garden and Three Sisters Garden form the Indiana Black Farmers Cooperative — are located in food deserts. The co-op donates half its produce to local food pantries, hosts farmers markets in food deserts and accepts SNAP and WIC, creating an opportunity for people with limited access to grocery stores to buy healthy foods in their neighborhood.
Sharrona Moore, chair of the cooperative, said she wants to do more than provide access to healthy foods. She also wants to inspire people to grow their own produce, increasing access to fruits and vegetables. Moore strives to prove you don’t need to be a stereotypical farmer living in the country to grow food.
“The stereotype of what a farmer looks like is usually an older white man, and that’s a huge misconception because if you look back through your history it was always Blacks who farmed,” Moore said. “… When you think of farmers, you never think of Black people. Being a Black woman in this industry, when I tell people I’m a farmer they are amazed.”
Indianapolis City-County Council
In June, the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee unanimously passed Proposal 258, a $580,000, four-pronged approach to eradicate food deserts. The full city-county council will vote on the measure at the next meeting on July 15. If it passes, the city will dedicate $175,000 to the development of a “Food Compass” app that informs people about both nearby food providers and their eligibility for assistance programs; $140,000 will go to a six-month trial partnership with Lyft to provide those who live in food deserts with discounted rides to supermarkets; $65,000 will go toward a Food Champion Program that trains residents in advocacy, organizing and creating food assistance programs; and $200,000 will fund a mobile grocery store that stops in food deserts.
Vivian Muhammad, co-founder of the Elephant Gardens, is critical of the proposal. Online resources such as Google already allow people to locate nearby food resources and the proposal dedicates funds to improving access to grocery stores outside the community instead of assisting growers already in the area, she said.
“You are going to reward Kroger and some of the other stores that have abandoned our neighborhood by carting some of our people in our community to where the grocery store is instead of helping to build to existing grocery stores,” Muhammad said.
On the other hand, Marshawn Wolley, lecturer, commentator, business owner and civic entrepreneur, sees the proposal as a good first step to addressing food deserts. He believes local grocery stores such as A & I Variety Meat and Produce will see more customers because of the Food Compass and Lyft programs. In addition, Wolley referenced an article in the Journal of Public Affairs that cited the city received feedback from more than 400 local residents when crafting Proposal 258.
“You rarely get stuff like this where folks have done this level of research and used this kind of a process to arrive at a community decision,” Wolley said. “You always miss people. You can always do better with your outreach, but this was pretty thorough.”
Hunger Awareness Week
Increasing food access for people living in food deserts is important, but Faith, Hope and Love Community Inc. (FHL), a Christian nonprofit that provides training and advocacy for food pantries, also wants to increase awareness through hosting Hunger Awareness Week July 20 through July 27. Merlin Gonzales, founder and president of FHL, hopes the week will show residents not only how many Hoosiers struggle with regular access to quality food but also how the problem is not just economic but also affects emotional and mental health. Hunger is also a community-wide issue. Gonzales cited a Clemson University study stating with every 1% increase of food insecurity in a city there is a 12% increase of violent crime.
“Unless we become aware of the effects of hunger, I think we will just provide emergency assistance, a bag of food, instead of looking at how we address the root causes of hunger and help people become more self-sustained instead of depending on the system,” Gonzales said.
FHL aims to raise the awareness through several events, beginning with a Hunger Walk for businesses and nonprofits that will include comments from Sen. Jim Merritt on July 20. On July 21, several churches will host a prayer walk. The week will conclude July 27 with the Hunger Awareness Community Gathering, a social event with a rummage sale, food trucks and a kids’ zone. Guest speakers will include Sen. John Crane and former Colts linebacker Devon McDonald.
For those who want to learn what it is like to lack access to quality food, FHL encourages participation in the 0-0-1 Challenge from July 22 to July 26. Over these five days, participants can only eat one small dinner each day, skipping all other meals and snacks. During each of these days, FHL will host walks from one food pantry to another, replicating the experience of being food insecure. Gonzales said that as participants feel the impacts of not eating, they will learn that lack of access to good food is not just about a rumbling feeling in the stomach. It can impact your mind, body and spirit. Kim Scott-Miller, pantry director for Cross Church, is worried about how eating so little will impact her day-to-day life, but is excited about how it will allow her to better understand her food pantry clients. Cross Church will host a prayer walk.
“I do want to experience that, and I think it will make me more compassionate and more empathetic to what our clients are going to,” Scott-Miller said.
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.
Finding an oasis in a food desert
Several nonprofits, ministries and businesses are working to end food deserts and hunger.
Indiana Black Farmers Cooperative
Faith, Hope and Love Community Inc
4002 W. 42nd St.
Cleo’s Bodega Grocery and Café
2432 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St
2424 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St
Edna Martin Christian Center
2605 E. 25th St.
A & I Variety Meat and Produce
8955 E. 38th St.
Midwest Food Bank’s Indianapolis Location
6450 S. Belmont Ave.
Boulevard Place Food Pantry
4202 Boulevard Place
The Lord’s Pantry at Anna’s House
303 N. Elder Ave.