Last July, after 58 years in business, the Indianapolis Double 8 grocery chain closed the doors of its four remaining stores, leaving many stranded in a food wasteland in the low-income neighborhoods north of downtown.
“The Double 8 has been around my whole life,” says Maxine Thomas, a longtime resident of Mapleton Fall Creek. “It was the neighborhood store we went to to get everything we needed.”
When she saw that her regular store was closed that hot July morning, Thomas wrote a note on a piece of paper offering rides with her contact information to anyone in the neighborhood who had to go to the grocery store. She didn’t have the tape, so she used the gum her daughter was chewing to stick the note on the door of the dark grocery store.
“I started thinking about all of my neighbors who relied on Double 8 and how they would get it [groceries], “She says.” There weren’t any stores nearby. “
Food insecurity on the rise
Mapleton Fall Creek is not an anomaly in Indianapolis. WalkScore.com ranked Indianapolis last among major US cities for access to healthy food. Only 5 percent of the population live just a five-minute walk from a grocery store. According to Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization, 19.4 percent of Marion County – which is primarily Indianapolis – faces food insecurity, compared to the national average of 15.4 percent.
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett made food insecurity a central theme of his campaign last year. In his Neighborhood Development Plan, his biggest promise to tackle food insecurity was to appoint a full-time employee to devote himself to the issue. In the coming weeks, Mayor Hogsett is expected to hire a food policy and programs coordinator who will work in the Mayor’s office under the direction of the Director of Public Health and Safety. The coordinator will be responsible for raising awareness and finding solutions to the city’s food insecurity crisis. As state and federal lawmakers push for food desert laws, the biggest challenge facing the future coordinator is to unify the patchwork of community-level initiatives that have emerged in Indianapolis over the years in response to the problem.
When the Double 8 grocery chain shut down in his home district, this was noticed by Democratic US representative André Carson.
“The Double 8s weren’t something to be excited about,” he admits. The floors were dirty, the meat wasn’t always fresh, and the customer service was below average. However, he admits that the food chain has deterred many low-income families from living in a full-blown food desert.
Carson met Maxine Thomas through her work with Results, an advocacy group against poverty. Her stories of trips to neighbors after Double 8 closed inspired Carson to action. In March, Carson introduced The Food Desert Act, which provides $ 150 million federal funding for low-interest loans to support existing or proposed grocery stores in food deserts. To be eligible, stores would need to sell staples and healthy options in underserved communities.
“Every state has a food wasteland,” says Carson. “Most of us can agree that if we were to successfully clear food deserts, it would go a long way [toward] Get to the bottom of the hunger problems in our country. “
Republican Senator Randy Head introduced a similar bill to the Indiana General Assembly earlier this year. The bill called for $ 1 million from the State General Fund to set up a grant program to support new and existing grocery stores selling fresh, unprocessed food in food deserts.
“I’m trying to make a program that gets people out of the program [welfare] Cycle, ”he says. “It’s about inspiring communities and improving people’s choices by providing better options.”
Both pieces of legislation face their respective challenges. The Indiana General Assembly wants a full study of food insecurity in Indianapolis before approving a grant program, and Carson’s bill faces great opportunity in the Republican-led Congress. To improve the availability of healthy food in Indianapolis, the new food policy coordinator’s best resources will likely come from the bottom up, not the top down.
“There are organizations out there that are doing a really great job fighting this problem,” said Taylor Schaffer, communications director for the mayor’s office. “Part of this person’s role will be to break down the silos that currently exist…. The more [organizations] The more we can work together, the more we can develop city-wide strategies to address the problems. “
Food banks and pantries play a vital role in providing healthy food in Indianapolis. The Midwest Food Bank is one of the largest providers of food donations in the state and serves between 80,000 and 90,000 residents every month – more than half of them live in Indianapolis. The Midwest Food Bank donated nearly £ 6.8 million, or $ 13.5 million in food, to Indianapolis last year, but demand continues to rise.
“[Food insecurity] has put on weight in Indianapolis every year I’ve been here, ”said John Whittaker, executive director of the Indiana division of the Midwest Food Bank. “We grew $ 3 million in dividends last year – and there is still a lot of need.”
Getting to the grocery store
Transportation is a key element of Indianapolis’ food insecurity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Atlas Research Map shows large swaths of low-income areas in Indianapolis that have poor access to grocery stores, poor access to vehicles, or both. The lack of public transport further exacerbates the problem. Using data from the National Transit Database, FiveThirtyEight ranked Indianapolis public transportation as the last of the US cities with a population of more than 1 million.
As in many cities, low-income residents of Indianapolis rely heavily on public transportation. The median income for commuters using public transportation in the city is $ 16,643, while the median income for commuters who drive is $ 30,349. Almost 20 percent of commuters who use public transport live in poverty – about twice as many as commuters who drive. City officials have advanced plans for a fast bus loop that would greatly improve local transport, but construction has yet to begin.
According to Schaffer, part of the in-depth coordinator’s role will be to improve access to transportation for low-income residents in food deserts.
“If transportation is an obstacle to everyday life, it will be an obstacle to healthy eating,” she says. “We have to lower these barriers as much as possible.”
For Christine McMullen, improvements in the city’s public transportation couldn’t come soon enough. After Double 8 closed in her neighborhood, she dragged her large red suitcase to the bus stop on Meridian and 34th Street to go shopping.
“If I go to a Kroger or Aldi, I have to take two buses,” she says.
During the week, the return trip takes about two hours. At the weekend, when buses run on an irregular schedule, it can take up to four hours.
To complement the lack of reliable public transportation in Indianapolis, alternative transportation options have emerged in recent years.
The city received a bike share in 2014, and according to Kären Haley, executive director of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which operates the system, “low-income residents use it [it] as one of the main ways to get around downtown Indianapolis. “
Their internal data for 2015 shows that 25 percent of trips among users of the Bike Share low-income program (which is charged $ 10 per year for membership) ended at one of two docking stations next to a grocery store.
However, the system only serves downtown, and carrying items like groceries on the bikes can be a challenge.
BlueIndy, an all-electric car sharing service in Indianapolis, is developing a food insecurity program. The company is considering building BlueIndy stations at Kroeger grocery stores in food deserts and is holding discussions with several facility management companies about building stations near low-income complexes.
“If there is a way to help people who live in a food desert [to acquire] fresh, healthy food, that’s our goal, ”says Lance Boehmer, Marketing Manager at BlueIndy.
BlueIndy also has its limits. Memberships cost approximately $ 10 per month and there are additional fees for each trip. While the company initially advertised the car sharing service as an “extension of local public transport”, the first stations were set up in areas with high economic activity. This has been viewed by some as an attempt to recoup taxpayer money invested in the controversial public-private partnership between the city and BlueIndy. Today only a few of the existing 74 stations are located in food deserts. However, the company is currently considering 250 locations for the last 100 stations, and more than half of the potential locations are in food deserts, according to Böhmer.
Since starting his campaign in late 2014, Hogsett has expressed confidence that Indianapolis can emerge from the food insecurity crisis. According to Schaffer, the biggest challenge will be to unify efforts across the city towards the same goal.
And it is a challenge the mayor is ready to put his legacy on.
“Awareness and resources for dealing with these systemic problems are increased [ultimately] Come to define this administration, ”said Schaffer.