Poverty, hunger and obesity go hand-in-hand. The Food Research and Action Center conducted a large national study from 1986–2002 that found a connection between poverty and obesity. The research determined that low-income areas have high rates of obesity; the cause was attributed to the lack of available nutritious high-quality foods compared to fast food restaurants and other sources of nutrient-poor high-calorie food options. A United Kingdom research team first coined the term "food desert" in a 1999 report analyzing similar data in that country.
A food desert occurs when affordable nutritious food cannot be easily obtained, especially by those without a car. In 2014, Walk Score — an online blog exploring various walkability issues around the country — ranked Indianapolis as the worst food desert in the United States. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed a searchable map that shows food desert locations all around the country. The interactive map shows large portions of Marion County and parts of Bloomington as severe food deserts with little access to healthy and affordable food. In terms of income, Indianapolis ranks ninth on the CBS Money Watch list of 11 poorest cities in the United States, with 29.1 percent of the city's population earning less than $25,000 a year. In 2015, Better Policies for a Healthier America released its report on the state of the obesity epidemic; Indiana was ranked seventh most obese in the country.
Indy natives have not taken this lying down. Everyone from shop owners to elected officials, from volunteers to preachers have started doing their part to try and alleviate the damage done by living in a food desert.
"The green options were brown"
When André Carson (D-Ind.) spoke to a group of students at the University of Indianapolis in March, he told them that he did cartwheels up and down College Avenue when the Double Eight supermarket was shut down.
"I felt for the community, because they didn't have many options," Carson said. "However, if you ever went inside of that particular Eight, the place was very filthy – filthy establishment. The customer service was terrible. There weren't any food options other than food that was near spoiled, or that was expired or was to be expired the next day."
- Michael Rheinheimer
- The former Double 8 Foods store on College Avenue.
After just a handful of visits to the market, Carson decided to take his business elsewhere.
"My heart went out to those people who did not have transportation. They had fewer options, and had to accept what was presented," he said.
Those options included the Double Eight, with spoiling food, or a gas station across the street. Carson said that the gas station, which had a Chester's Chicken chain inside, at least had cleaner facilities and better customer service.
In July 2015, all five Double Eight markets throughout the city shut their doors, never to reopen. According to RTV 6's coverage, the closure happened without notice to its customers or its employees. The company shut down after 58 years in business, citing declining revenue. For nearly sixty years, the Double Eight markets stayed behind and weathered the storm while other markets left.
According to Carson, the issues that drove Double Eight out of business are similar to the issues that chase other markets out of neighborhoods.
"You've had in the past a reasonable presence of grocery stores," he said. "These stores have left due to different positions that the organizations have taken, and as a result we have what we have now in these food deserts. Now, many of these grocery stores were located in areas where there were considerable amounts of crime, so the excuse has been there."
According to data collected by SpotCrime.com, the surrounding areas where all five Double Eight markets once stood now see very high levels of crime.
Carson sees a three-point solution. First would be to improve Indianapolis' transportation.
"I think for the most part it really has to do with the need to improve transportation at the crux of it. So it speaks to what we need to do as a world class city, in terms of revamping our infrastructure – be it light rail, be it bus rapid transit and other things," he said. "... So many of these people in most of these cities like Indianapolis, and even rural communities, they don't have access through a car or public transportation.
Second would be to require the community to serve as watchdogs against what he says are unscrupulous practices.
"I think that as consumers — as community stakeholders — we're going to have to start applying greater levels of scrutiny on these establishments so they don't think it's okay to come into food deserts and present options that are simply unacceptable in any other community," he said.
As an example, markets in food deserts should no longer be given a pass to sell "green options that were brown," as the Double Eight he used to shop at did.
Finally, Carson wants to see Congress pass, and the president sign, the Food Deserts Act. Carson says his bill would help eliminate food deserts by providing a revolving door fund for NGOs, non-profits or private entities to open a market in a food desert.
If the bill is passed, the Department of Agriculture will provide grants to each state. The states will then distribute loans to for-profit or non-profit entities to open a grocery store in an underserved area. Loans will also be granted to existing supermarkets in underserved areas to bring their selection up to par.
- Michael Rhinheimer
- The closed Double 8 Foods store on Illinois Street, across Tarkington Park from the NUVO offices.
According to notes on the bill provided by Carson's team in early March: "priority will be given to applications that include a plan to hire workers from the underserved community, provide information about a healthy diet, do not sell alcohol or tobacco products, [and] source food from local farms and gardens."
Each state government will be required to issue the loans at or below market interest rates for terms no longer than 30 years. Payments of principal and interest will return to the fund to be redistributed as new loans.
The act calls for an initial investment of $150 million to be divided among the fifty states. The states with higher percentages of underserved communities will receive more funding. States will be required to provide a 20 percent match of whatever federal grant they receive.
Carson says the benefit of the revolving door system would keep the program free from politicking. He says because of politics, sometimes funding for current programs becomes unstable.
"There are a number of valuable programs that look at addressing food access in struggling communities – I think we should be looking for ways to fund these programs. Now the tougher part is that the funding for these programs is very unstable," he said. "It depends on which party is in power."
Unfortunately, those politics seem to be getting in the way of the bill's success.
"The prospects for passage this year are pretty slim," Carson said. "Only because Democratic led bills have rarely been considered. However, we've had considerable productive discussions with the House Agriculture Committee. To have that kind of dialogue on both sides of the aisle in the House and Committee is a huge step."
Carson's bill has received support from more than just Republicans and Democrats. Muslim Alliance of Indiana, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Feed Indiana's Hungry, Gleaners Food Bank and even Meals on Wheels.
Carson said that this speaks to what he views as a universal concern about hunger in the United States.
Life in a food desert
Maxine Thomas' life took a turn when the Double Eight on Fairfield Avenue closed. For years, that was the only supermarket she and her neighbors had in their neighborhood. She said in the immediate aftermath of the store's sudden closure, her community rallied together to do what they could.
"It was kind of like carpooling and asking neighbors to pick up and go and grab things for each other," she said. "They would make calls and go knock on the doors to see if they needed a ride or if they could bring something back for them. I actually have provided transportation for a few individuals who needed a ride to the store after they closed."
Many of her neighbors were elderly or disabled, and did not have reliable transportation to get them to and from the next closest market. She said most of her neighbors simply couldn't afford transportation.
When Carson announced the Food Desert Act at the Edna Martin Christian Center, Thomas came to show her support.
"When I learned of that bill I was really excited," she said. "We don't have a reliable market there. For myself, I knew that my help would only be in it for so long and for so many. But even on a national level where our congressman is really stepping up with this bill and really making a direct impact on it — and we really appreciate it."
- submitted photo
- Indianapolis resident Maxine Thomas (center) stands with community leader Al Polin (left) and Congressman Carson (right) at the press conference announcing the proposed legislation.
Like Carson, Thomas believes that the first step toward beating food deserts is raising awareness.
"If people know that this is real, that there are individuals that have needs to access food just to feed their families – people have a power to actually change and make a difference so that is something that really should be heard," she said. "It is real. Just raising the awareness that a local community is affected by this food desert is real, but it doesn't have to be. Something can be done, just taking it to the people in power, like our congressman and his colleagues, to get them to support something that really makes a great impact on the community."
Overall, Thomas said that she is optimistic for the future. She believes that the Food Desert Act will contribute to ending the damage done by hunger, and sees the bill as the start of something great.
She's aware of the critics of Carson's bill who worry about the $150 million startup cost. She says she wants them to realize what's at stake.
"I just wish they'd realize that people can't feed their families," she said. "People's lives are at stake. The city spends all that money putting in those blue cars and there are people here who don't have the money to rent those cars to go get food."
A place for relief
Stephanie Davis has lived in Indianapolis her entire life. During her lifetime in the city, she has seen a gradual increase in the amount of hungry people.
Davis is the program director for Catholic Charities' Crisis Office. According to her, at least 200 needy families receive aid from the Crisis Office between Mondays and Thursdays when they are open.
"Individuals are allowed to visit every thirty days just because the need is so great," Davis said. "We would run out of food if we kept our doors open all the time. A lot of the food we do receive from USDA, but half of it is purchased or donated."
Those donations, she says, have been slowing down since the 2008 recession.
"I think people try to help as much as they can, and individuals don't always have a community network or a family network to help," she said. "A lot of the people who come to see us now are the working poor."
Davis said part of her job now entails helping people who once had enough food or money to donate. She blames underemployment felt since the economic downturn.
"We actually have people in middle management positions leaving lunch early. It's a way to provide for their families," Davis said. We look back and we've seen people who have come in to donate to us before, and now they're coming in to get help. Their bills are the same amount, but now they're receiving less money."
Davis says on average, Catholic Charities gives out between 5,000 and 9,000 pounds of food each month. Unfortunately, she said, that number is growing.
As an attempt to help alleviate that burden, Saint Matthew's Catholic Church runs a large garden. All of the food grown is given to local pantries. And at Saint John the Evangelist, a Garden Door Ministry is operated. According to their website, any hungry or homeless people that come to the door are given a meal.
The Catholic Charities food pantry is one of 57 food pantries serving Marion County. Most of the pantries are affiliated with local churches with monthly access and serve only the families sharing the same zip code with the pantry. Gleaners Food Bank and the Saint Vincent DePaul pantry are the only food banks in the city that serve the entire city and allow weekly visits.
What is the answer?
The issue of food deserts in Indianapolis has become a priority for many organizations in Indianapolis. The Indy Food Council is a collaborative effort of many of those organizations that are dedicated to creating a food system in the city that provides everyone with access to healthy nutritious food. The group's initiatives focus on improving access to healthy food, expanding the market for local food and community-based programming for health and nutrition education.
Conquering hunger and creating access to good healthy food will take much more than a quick easy fix. The issue is a multi-layered complex problem that will most likely require many paths to multiple solutions.