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Indianapolis Ranks Worst In The Nation For Food Deserts

Residents on Indianapolis' east side must travel several miles to the nearest grocery store--a task that is difficult for many that do not own cars.

Grocery co-op

Photo: Jashin Lin

Grocery stores a scarcity in some Indianapolis neighborhoods.

Residents who live on the east side of Indianapolis say on average they shop at grocery stores that are between three and six miles from their homes.

“Obviously when you don’t have access to anything, it’s frustrating,” Indianapolis city council member Zach Adamson says. “It adds to the day to day struggle that people living in poverty have to deal with among many others.”

Adamson lives on the east side.

He commutes into the city for work each day and can stop at a grocery on the way home, but many of his neighbors he says aren’t so fortunate.

They don’t have cars. They get where they have to go on foot or they rely on public transportation or friends for a ride.

“You can probably find bread or milk or juice but Speedway doesn’t have baby formula or vegetables,” Adamson says. “When you’re financially challenged, you’re looking for the most bang for your buck. Even when you’re dealing with Family Dollar or discount stores that have food products, I wouldn’t call them food because they’re so lacking in nutritional value.

You can see by the USDA map below that half of Indianapolis east side is in a food desert, and the rest of the city also contains a large swath of food deserts.

Indianapolis

Photo: Courtesy USDA

Green areas mark where food deserts are in Indianapolis.

In fact, according to Walk Score, Indianapolis ranks the worst in the nation for the percentage of people who have easy access to food. Walk Score made their estimates based on how many people could walk to a grocery store within five minutes.

The USDA’s definition of a food desert is a little more broad. Here’s its definition:

  • 20 percent to 40 percent of residents must make 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level
  • In an urban area, residents must have to travel a mile or more to get to groceries
  • In a rural area they must have to travel more than 10 miles to get groceries

Where Grocery Stores Build

Some years ago there used to be a grocery store on the east side of Indianapolis, but it closed and nothing came in to replace it.

“When we’re talking about trying to encourage families to move back into our city center, nobody wants to live someplace, especially if they’ve been living in a [su]burb where they’re five minutes from a grocery store,” Adamson says. “You move back in the city and deal with higher crime, more density and more scarcity. That’s not an invitation and that’s not very inviting.”

Adamson says you can’t talk about the problem of food deserts without acknowledging the role retailers play. In some places, like Broadripple, Adamson says there will be multiple grocery stores in the same block.

“But you come into the very dense parts of the city that are economically challenged and they won’t even put a grocery store in there,” Adamson says. “You can saturate some markets and totally deny others. That’s one of the reasons why it was important to pass our healthy food resolutions.”

The Indy Food Council, which launched in January, focuses on making healthy food available to everyone.

Its healthy food resolution lists the impacts of Indy’s high number of food deserts and calls for investing money in communities that are challenged.

That could be creating a special taxing district to encourage grocery stores to move in.

“Grocery stores use a lot of criteria,” says Cindy Stone, associate professor at Indiana University’s Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health. “They have enough density of population per square mile that is what the grocery stores are looking for. Because they are lower income that’s not as desirable, and because that one grocery store did fail, that’s not so good.”

People In Food Deserts Want Healthier Options

Stone conducted a neighborhood study in the east side’s Meadows community. Lack of healthy food has been a problem here for as many as four decades, Stone says.

Most survey responses indicated the need for a grocery store with healthy options.

“They identified certain foods like organic foods being available and higher quality meats and fruits and vegetables so they were quite concerned not only with the affordability but the quality of the food that would be available,” Stone says.

Many of the survey respondents also expressed an interest in cooking classes.

Kayte Young leads those kinds of cooking classes at the Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard food bank in Bloomington.

“I definitely think that providing the fresh food is not enough,” Young says. “If someone has not been exposed to that fresh food and doesn’t know what to do with it. Maybe they’ve seen green beans but they’ve only seen it in a can eh what do I do is this too much trouble, but we say nope just stick it in some water. Sort of taking away the mystery of it and making sure people understand how simple and more delicious it is.”

Young works with a lot of people in poverty, teaching them how to cook from scratch with whole food ingredients.

Kaitlin Sowder, Bloomington resident, comes to these classes often.

“I’m 17 and I’m taking over the cooking portion of my family because my mom’s disabled, my step father’s disabled and my step-brother’s taking on a full time job at the nursing home, Garden Villa,” Sowder says. “My family hasn’t bought the fresh ingredients yet so far because we’re on food stamps and my mom’s a little set in her old ways and she does the grocery shopping, but I’m still trying to convince her fresh food would be better.”

Indianapolis’ Healthy Food Resolution aims to make fresh food more accessible through a variety of avenues. Grocery stores is one, but there’s also community gardens, and farmer’s markets.

Adamson’s neighborhood has raised garden beds, chickens and a beehive. Residents have also started a co-op.

“I think creation of food co-op is a testament to communities coming together and how that can really impact a lot of change,” Adamson says. “It takes a lot of time and effort. It’s expensive but we’re at nearly a thousand members now and I remember all of us coming together and many of us barely knew each other but we all realized that without us taking this action, we weren’t going to have access to healthy foods.”

Indianapolis’ food council just organized at the beginning of the year. The group is in the process holding community meetings to establish what the real food issues are and then the council will establish its goals.

Sara Wittmeyer

Sara Wittmeyer is the News Bureau Chief for WFIU and WTIU. Sara has more than a decade of experience as a news reporter and previously served with KBIA at the University of Missouri, WNKU at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY, and at WCPO News in Cincinnati.

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  • Janis Starcs

    We in Bloomington are more fortunate in reasonably spaced grocery stores and smaller distances than Indianapolis, though I wonder about the northwest side. To add to Indianapolis’ misery, they have one of the worst public transportation systems in the country. I grew up there using the buses a lot because my mother worked, but since then, the powers that be thought more of financing lavish sports palaces than providing working people with a way to get to work or shop.

  • http://indianapublicmedia.org Indiana Public Media

    The northwest side of Bloomington or Indianapolis? You can find where the food deserts are based on this USDA map. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas.aspx#.U4nD3PldWSp The northwest side toward Ellettsville is largely a food desert.

  • Frank Rizzo

    I don’t buy this at all. My Eastside home is within walking distance of two major supermarkets and a farmer’s market. And there is a co-op grocery about a mile or two away.

  • Bob Eckert

    I live on the northwest side of the Bloomington, IN downtown and I am exactly 1 mile from a large Marsh supermarket, I can walk, bike, or drive to it. There is no neighborhood market where I live only 2 or so convenience stores attached to gas stations. I think the food “deserts” could be eliminated in Indy if they would get serious about grocery-related robberies. Many neighborhoods around the downtown in Indy would never be considered by a grocery chain or even an independent grocer because there is too much crime.

  • Russ Frame

    Maybe the reason is that the stores that were there kept getting robbed and wanted to move to safer neighborhoods.

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