Food For Thought

Indy ranks worst in the nation for food deserts. Meet the folks planting oases.

With the local restaurant scene booming and national grocery chains popping up around the city, it might seem as though Indy residents have plenty of access to good food. Not so, according to a study by Walk Score, a Seattle-based company that promotes and rates walkability. It ranked Indianapolis the worst city in the country for “food deserts”—neighborhoods lacking adequate access to fresh food—with only 5 percent of the population able to walk to a grocery store within five minutes. A report from the Food Research & Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization, showed that 16 percent of households in the metropolitan area were unable to afford enough food in 2015. We asked a panel of nonprofit leaders what community organizations are doing to improve the availability of fresh, nutritious food in underserved areas.


Matthew Feltrop
Executive Director, Patachou Foundation
The Patachou Foundation helps to fight hunger, food insecurity, and low nutrition among Indianapolis children by providing 650 meals each week to needy kids.
Theresa Vernon
Regional Director, The Kitchen Community
The Kitchen Community, a national nonprofit that builds learning gardens at low-income schools and provides access to and education on healthy food, expanded into Indianapolis in November.
Brandon Cosby
Executive Director, Flanner House
The oldest community social- services agency in the state, Flanner House is building a 2.3-acre urban farm on the northwest side that will produce 40,000 pounds of organic produce per year in the city’s largest food desert.


What makes the lack of food access uniquely acute in Indianapolis?
Feltrop: Our food deserts are so vast because of our geography and the way that our neighborhoods are set up. What’s worse is that we’re in the middle of the breadbasket, and we can’t get food to people living right outside our doorstep.
Cosby: We have really thriving neighborhoods next to neighborhoods that have been under-resourced for a long time. That juxtaposition has funneled economic development over the past 50 years into certain neighborhoods and left other neighborhoods right next to them without the resources.
Vernon: We may be ranked at the top of the nation for food deserts, but what’s unique about Indianapolis is that we care about our community and neighbors. We don’t sit back and say, “What a shame.” Grocery stores may be closing and fast-food restaurants may be going up in their place, but we’re building urban gardens and putting gardens in schools, and we’re doing after-school feeding programs.
Who’s working on the issues of hunger and food access in the city?
Feltrop: Two organizations trying to tackle food access and local food production on a larger scale are the Indy Hunger Network and the Indy Food Council. The Indy Food Council recently lobbied for a position in the city, and Shellye Suttles was hired as the city’s Food Policy & Program Coordinator. The Indy Hunger Network organizes large and small players that are in hunger relief.
Cosby: There are a lot of organizations doing things. But if we don’t tackle these issues in a systemic way, then you’re getting a lot of dedicated people who are working really hard, but you’re not having a seismic kind of impact. I think that’s one of the things that’s lacking here in Indianapolis versus some of the other places that are wrestling with the same kinds of issues.
What are some obstacles to improving nutrition in underserved areas?
Vernon: If consumers have never had the opportunity to be educated on why nutrition is important, then patterns will repeat themselves. Generational poverty will do that to a community. People will stop realizing or understanding why healthy choices are so important.
Cosby: Food access leads directly to poor nutrition. We become conditioned to what is available to us. Folks are not making unhealthy choices because they want to. If you have a family of four to feed, and you have $10, and a tomato is $2 versus a family-size bag of chips at $2.25, which are you going to choose?
Feltrop: Over 75 percent of the kids we serve don’t have a dinner table at home. That is a cultural shift that’s happened at all levels of our society. Then there’s also the health issue. We are one of the worst cities in the country for youth diabetes and risk of youth obesity. If you talk to some medical practitioners, they’re no longer treating this as a medical issue.
Other than the humanity of feeding children well, what effect does their nutrition have on society as a whole?
Feltrop: This is a whole systemic issue where we have to get families eating the right way. Some social psychologists looked at what happens when you don’t sit at a table at home to eat. It was among the factors they studied that determined academic success of the students. If they ate dinner around a table with their families, they were more likely to succeed.
Cosby: Our children cannot do well if they are hungry. They can’t. We keep talking about raising the academic performance of kids. Where should we start? Feed them better.
Vernon: Schools are where lifelong habits are formed. It is a bigger challenge to change behaviors of adults and educate them on healthy food access. Also, nourishing kids aligns directly with their success. If children are feeling healthy, they’re going to be more successful, which builds stronger communities.
What does Indianapolis need the most to address its food-access problem?
Cosby: We definitely need smaller access points. And we’re working on them. In Chicago or New York, bodegas are the lifeblood of communities. But here, we still think we have to have the big Kroger. We are in the process of developing plans to open a bodega at Flanner House.
Feltrop: Transportation is still a huge issue when it comes to food access. IU Health and Green Bean Delivery piloted a program called Garden on the Go where they sold produce on a mobile truck. That was innovative. We need more programs like that.
Vernon: I think providing an education on healthy food choices is equally as important as providing access to that food. We need to do more to educate adults, but starting with children is important. We need to expose children to what a carrot looks like growing out of the ground. If people are part of the cultivation of real food, they have more chance of eating it.

How You Can Help

Volunteer at an urban garden or donate to a food bank.
Share your ideas or attend a panel discussion in the Indy Healthy Food Access Challenge program.
Attend the Patachou Foundation Speaker’s Forum on April 27 featuring Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez of Hot Bread Kitchen in NYC, then sign on to help the foundation serve after-school meals.
Contribute monetary support to Flanner House’s mission to build a 2.3-acre public garden.