The meals deserts in Indianapolis may very well be alleviated by the farm-to-table development

Cherry tomatoes grown in a hydroponic greenhouse at the Felege Hiywot Center in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 24, 2018.  The center supplies products to Chefs for Hire who pack the meals for Indy Parks' grocery programs.  The first harvest of cherry tomatoes was recently included in the children's meals at Garfield Park Summer Day Camp.

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church was formerly known as “Baseball Church” because of the baseball diamonds on the property. now it might be more appropriate to call it the food church.

Like a growing number of organizations across the city, the Church in the Middle East decided a few years ago to convert one of its playing fields into an urban garden. Parishioners are now growing thousands of pounds of fresh groceries for nearby pantries.

“We knew we were in the middle of a desert area,” said Michael Scime, a deacon at St. Alban’s. “And we had this empty half acre. Instead of mowing the property, we thought we were doing something that would benefit the community and address a problem in the neighborhood.”

A new report from the Indy Food Council estimates that the number of urban and community gardens in Indianapolis has increased 272 percent since 2011, from 54 to 147 at the end of 2016.

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The movement is a direct effort, in part sponsored by city officials, to provide fresh food in low-income areas known as food deserts.

Agriculture is a billion dollar industry for Indiana where farmers produce more pigs, eggs, watermelons, tomatoes, eggs, turkeys.Corn and soybeans than most other states in the country.

In Indianapolis, however, the city sits in the middle of more than 14 million acres of farmland. According to the Indy Food Council report released last week, 1 in 6 residents said they were food unsafe in 2015.

The report also found:

  • Significant foodborne illness rates could affect the Indian economy. A third of the Hoosiers are obese. And nearly 10 percent of Marion County’s residents have diabetes, a disease that costs the nation $ 245 billion a year to treat.
  • “Food deserts” affect a disproportionate percentage of Marion County’s minorities. Many of the areas designated by the US Department of Agriculture as “low-income, inaccessible” are located in minority neighborhoods.
  • A healthy eating culture is essential for economic development. Neighborhoods struggle to grow and thrive when there is no access to food, but low density makes grocery stores difficult to operate.

The report not only confirms the city’s problems with access to food, it also suggests that Indianapolis has the potential for a living food system. And as the city’s local food scene – including restaurants, farmers markets, and urban farms – reaches critical mass, Shellye Suttles and others begin to believe that the answer lies within the city limits.

Suttles is the city’s food policy coordinator, a new position created by Mayor Joe Hogsett. Breastfeeding mothers who visit the City County Building have her thanks for providing convenient, private places to breastfeed their children.

While nursing her own son, she noticed that there were few, if any, such places in the city building. So she reached out to her boss, who gave her the resources and support to get her established in the building.

It’s the same kind of creativity that she brings into her new job.

Mayor Joe Hogsett poses for a photo with students at the Felege Hiywot Center in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 24, 2018. The center supplies products to Chefs for Hire who package meals for Indy Parks' food programs.  The first harvest of cherry tomatoes was recently included in the children's meals at Garfield Park Summer Day Camp.

A reputation for food deserts

Suttles, who has a PhD in Agricultural Economics, has worked with agencies and organizations across town for the past few months to get a better picture of food access issues.

Indianapolis has earned a reputation for “food deserts” through some actions that are making the country poor access to food.

The US Department of Agriculture defines restricted food access areas, often referred to as “food deserts,” as low-income areas where large swathes of the population live half a mile or a mile from the grocery store.

Nearly half of Marion County’s residents live more than a mile from the nearest grocery store, according to the USDA. Marion County’s population of more than 86,000 – approximately 10 percent of the population – live in food deserts. However, this number may be higher because the data used by the USDA is from 2015 and may not reflect the closings of Double 8 and Marsh grocery stores.

In contrast, Hamilton County’s only 1,188 people live in comparable food deserts, or less than 2 percent of the county’s population.

While the USDA’s data is useful up to a point, Suttles said it doesn’t tell the full story. Big box retail stores are a big part of the food system, but they’re not the only way Indianapolis residents find fresh groceries. Food pantries, farmers markets, and community food projects are part of the picture, and that is not captured in the USDA data.

“Everyone plays a role,” said Suttles. And the same low population density that makes it difficult for companies to invest in bigger businesses could, in turn, help Indianapolis tackle the problem of food access at its roots.

Groceries from the garden of St. Alban's Episcopal Church go to the nearby pantries.  Crosses in the garden mark every murder in a calendar year.

A garden and a higher purpose

In St. Alban, the garden also serves a spiritual purpose. In his garden are white wooden crosses between cabbage green and butternut squash, one for every murder in Indianapolis in a calendar year.

“We believe in the fact that we are resurrected, so the crosses are a sign of that resurrection,” said Rev. Debbie Dehler. “We’re planting something that represents death, but around it is new life.”

Scime, the deacon in St. Alban, said the church garden is often the only source of fresh fruits and vegetables in the pantries. Grocery stores donate some products, but often when it’s days old and near the expiration date. Food from St. Alban’s arrives in the pantry the same day it is picked.

The city is full of similar projects and organizations that combine food, gardening, and social justice, Suttles said. Earlier this summer, the city launched a Farm to Fork initiative for Indy Kids that uses local produce for after-school meals.

The city has also seen growth in its Indy Urban Garden program, which allows residents to rent and cultivate empty lots owned by the city’s land bank.

A handful of these lots are being rented from the Kheprw Institute, a local organization focused on social and economic justice, for their latest agricultural and entrepreneurial program, Growin ‘Good in the Hood.

The program will help a handful of new growers manage the land on the city’s northwest farms. Any food they raise that they don’t eat or give away can be sold through a farmers market or through another AI program called the Community Controlled Food Initiative.

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“We call it ‘the art of taking off’ here,” said Paulette Fair, co-founder of KI. “You’re not waiting for the big scholarship money to come in. Do what you can with what you have and then start applying for scholarships.”

The organization’s basic philosophy doesn’t preclude it from working hand in hand with the city, but they’ve been burned before. Imhotep Adisa, co-founder and executive director of KI, recalls a weak relationship with a previous incarnation of the Indy Food Council when it was a closed panel of nominees. Adisa said the voices were largely institutional and almost entirely white and male.

“That in itself is not a crime, but it shapes and filters the types of decisions made and the impact on rooms,” Adisa told IndyStar.

Optimistic about Suttles and her role in the city, Adisa said she was an active listener. But Adisa fears that her efforts will fail unless additional resources are made available to her.

Still, he and Fair believe that someone in the city who can help connect existing resources with people can help improve access to food in their communities.

“The word should come from above that when the community tries to do something, you help them find out,” Fair said.

Emily Hopkins handles the environment for IndyStar. Contact them at 317-444-6409 or [email protected] Follow them on Twitter: @_thetextfiles.

IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.