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Bill aims to stimulate business to reduce food deserts statewide

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Forty-two ounce Styrofoam cups line the counter. As a child shakes a bag, candy dances in its bright red package. He is begging his mother for what "is only a dollar." Chip bags of every color fill the white, rusty racks, selling for just over a buck.

But nowhere in sight at this Indianapolis convenience store is a refrigerator filled with fresh fruits and vegetables.

This convenience store is in a food desert.

There is no phrase Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, hates more than "food desert," which is why he is dedicated to fighting Indiana's hunger.

And he's not giving up any time soon.

What is a food desert?

As defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a food desert is a geographical area where fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods are lacking.

These areas with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables are often found in low-income neighborhoods or rural communities where a grocery store may be far away. The USDA reports 59 percent of Indiana counties have a food desert.

For three years, Head has proposed legislation that would "get fresh, unprocessed foods where they need to be."

"Poverty has been a persistent problem in Indiana and throughout the country for decades on end," Head said. "Things that have been done to try to reduce it have been an absolute failure."

Of the more than 451,000 Hoosiers included in the 2010 USDA census, nearly 223,000 people live in a classified food desert with low access to a grocery store. Meanwhile, more than 44,500 low-income Hoosiers have low access to a grocery store.

"To qualify as a 'low-access community,' at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store," according to the USDA.

And while a convenience store may be in close proximity, the amount of healthy food available is very slim.

Looking for a solution

The legislation, which Head will propose again in January, would create incentives for food retailers to offer fresh and unprocessed foods by providing a grant or loan to the retailers to purchase equipment needed to market such products.

This loan and grant program previously failed in the General Assembly, because lawmakers worried about a lack of accountability for how the money is spent. Under the new version Head is crafting for the 2017 session, the money would be administered by the Department of Health. If misused, the business would then be required to pay the state back.

"We're trying to stimulate the market," Head said. "We want the primary movers here to be business people, not the government. We want to make it easier for them to offer fresh foods. We want to make it easier for people to be healthier and to make better choices, to make their family budget go further and help make that happen in areas where it can't happen now, because they don't have that access."

Partners Outside the Statehouse

Indiana would not be the first state to install a program like this. Head credited a Philadelphia program, The Food Trust, for their work in a similar field.

The Food Trust dedicates its efforts to "ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food and information to make healthy decisions," according to its site.

Established in 1992, the nonprofit partners with surrounding communities, schools, grocers, farmers and legislators to create a "comprehensive approach to improved food access."

While Head hopes to see his legislation expand into a project similar to The Food Trust's, he said any help counts in fighting hunger in Indiana.

Also working alongside legislators is Emily Weikert Bryant, the executive director of Feeding Indiana's Hungry, a local organization working toward diminishing hunger in Indiana through food banks.

Weikert Bryant said she is "looking how we can better serve in those food deserts."

"Having access to food is really a basic human right," Weikert Bryant said. "How we access it and what mechanisms we use to get there is what we're discussing. What's the best way to tackle hunger? What's the best way to tackle food access? Our piece in this is narrower in scope because our clients aren't going to be bothered by what is available as long as something is available."

Weikert Bryant sees Head's legislation as a piece of the solution to improving food access. If the bill becomes law, food retailers could receive a grant or loan to purchase equipment, such as refrigerators or a food truck, in order to market healthier food items.

"I want to see people in underserved areas given the opportunity to make good choices for themselves and their families regarding what they purchase," Head said. "I want to see them get healthier. I want to see them have more of their family budget go further."


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