By John Krull
John Krull, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Regina Marsh tells me about the damage that food deserts can do to a community.
As the leader of Forest Manor Multi Service Center in Indianapolis, Marsh knows the kind of scars that food deserts can carve into neighborhoods. She says that food deserts affect communities in ways that are obvious – by causing health care problems such as malnutrition and obesity – and not immediately apparent because they rob young people of their potential.
A food desert, by the federal government’s definition, is an urban or rural area in which a significant portion of the population lives in poverty and does not have a supermarket or large grocery store nearby.
Marsh and I are talking during the broadcast of the radio show I host. We’re joined by Melissa Fisher of the Indy East Food Desert Coalition and Tim Carter of Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology.
Carter explains that, using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of a food desert, there are at least 52 of them in Marion County alone. If one uses a slightly more rigorous definition, there could be as many as 125.
Marsh then says that the federal government has determined that her community, Forest Manor, is a food desert. The grocery stores are gone and that leaves only corner convenience stores, most of which sell foods that not only are expensive but also aren’t nutritious. It becomes difficult – in fact, almost impossible – for people in the community to feed themselves in ways that are healthy.
And that has disastrous consequences. It creates a cycle of poverty and despair that can be hard to break.
A listener tells of an elderly woman who has to take two buses to travel four miles to get a bag of groceries or pay $5 for a gallon of milk at the corner store. When those are the choices and the margin for error is small – as is it is for many poor people – the climb up out of poverty can be insurmountable.
Carter says that the recognition of food deserts as a problem is still so new that everyone admits that no one has a proven solution yet.
Fisher says that her group, Indy East Food Desert Coalition, wants to pilot possible solutions. The coalition is creating community gardens where local people can grow their own food and food coops where they can shop and barter with their neighbors. They also plan an aggressive public education campaign about the advantages of eating wisely – and the dangers of eating poorly.
Marsh points out that any solution to the problem has to recognize realities. She tells the story of the last grocery store – a Cub Foods – to move out of the area. The store operated on a volume model and tried to keep prices low by selling products in bulk.
That doesn’t work with poor people, Marsh says, who shop every day or every other day and purchase in smaller portion, often because they don’t have the money or the storage space to handle more.
A caller asks if there are ways to get the free market to address this problem.
Marsh, Carter and Fisher all say that is the challenge. And they reiterate that everyone now is trying different approaches to solve the problem in the hope that some combination of approaches – “there is no silver bullet,” Carter says – will make an impact.
Marsh makes the case that the challenge must be met. She says it’s a not a coincidence that communities that are food deserts struggle in many other areas. If we want to change the dynamics in regard to health, crime and educational achievement, she says, we should start by making sure that people get the food they need to sustain themselves.
I ask Fisher, Carter and Marsh what success will look like in this struggle.
Fisher says we’ll know we’ve been successful when people have healthy food choices available to them. Carter says that success will be marked by various parts of the community coming together to solve the problem.
Marsh has the best answer.
She says that we’ll know we’ve been successful when test scores at schools in areas once designated as food deserts start to rise because the students come to class fed and focused on learning.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.