The repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic are huge and are making it impossible for some people to meet even their basic needs.
For Anthony Parker, growing up on Indianapolis’ east side hasn’t been easy.
“It’s been kind of rough, growing up in this area. There are no resources at all,” Parker said as he walked into Healthy Harvest community market.
The market opened last fall on 10th and Rural streets. Owner Jonathan Lawler wanted to fill a neighborhood void in the lack of quality food at an affordable price.
Although the nearest chain grocery store is only a mile and a half away, that is too far for some of his customers
“It is if you have to walk or take a bus that has to make a roundabout,” Lawler said.
Many Indianapolis residents live in a food desert, meaning they have to travel several miles for access to healthy food.
Lawler allows customers who don’t have a lot of money to pay what they can, or even work at the market in exchange for groceries.
“No one gets turned away when they come into this store asking for something, we make sure everybody leaves with some type of healthy food, even if they don’t have money,” Lawler said.
IUPUI’s Community Information System, or SAVI studied food deserts and found 22 percent of Marion County residents were living in one. The study began in 2016 right before the grocery chain Marsh folded.
Despite the loss of the Indiana-based grocer, researcher Unai Miguel-Andres found the number of grocery stores in the Indianapolis metro area stayed the same between 2016 and 2019 because new stores were clustered together in more affluent areas of town.
“Grocery stores, like any other businesses are going to open where they can get the highest number of customers, and sadly, food deserts and areas lacking food access tend to be low income,” Miquel-Andres said.
Food insecurity is hitting children and families particularly hard. According to the Hamilton Project, the percentage of households with children under 18 who said they didn’t have enough to eat increased from 15 percent in 2018 to 35 percent this past April.
“This past year we were at 62% free and reduced lunch and half of our students end up taking advantage of that program,” Burris Elementary School principal Jessica Jones said.
Jones say many of the students at her school in Mitchell rely on a program called Lawrence County Interfaith Endeavors, or LIFE. Older students purchase and package food from local grocers and distribute it to needy students.
However, finding fresh and healthy food has been a challenge.
“When the program first started, we had I guess what you would call maybe not the healthiest of choices, like pop tarts and things like that,” Jones said.
Hoosier Hills Food Bank serves six south central Indiana counties including, Lawrence, Owen Monroe, Brown, Orange and Martin counties.
The agency normally spends $100,000 a year on transportation costs and purchasing food, but as of July that number was already $750,000.
“People lost childcare, had to stay home, school meals weren’t available,” Director Julio Alonso said, comparing the crisis to the Great Recession over a decade ago.
To make matters worse, many Hoosier Hills volunteers are staying home because of the pandemic.
“We’re not doing food drives right now and our biggest of the year, the Letter Carriers Food drive in May was cancelled. We’re not picking up from restaurants with their left-over prepared food,” Alonso said.
Alonso said the Indiana National Guard has stepped in to help distribute food to partner agencies.
Lawler wants to open up another Healthy Harvest market in an underserved community.
Rather than buying from a warehouse, he plans to use his sprawling farm in Hancock County as a source for most his food.
“Our farm has given away almost 3 million pounds of produce in the last 4 years, going to food banks, community centers,” Lawler said.
Lawler’s customer Parker said he has a theory as to why larger grocery stores may be hesitant to expand into lower income communities.
“Because they are scared of the people, I mean I don’t understand all of a sudden we’ve become scared of people. There’s always been people around so how are you going to be scared of another person.”
Lawler adds getting everyone to shop at community grocery stores, regardless of their income level is the best way to ensure these stores keep their doors open.
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