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Despite initiatives, food deserts a growing problem in Indy

When Polis Center researchers pressed a room full of community members on how they were able to identify food deserts on blown-up maps of Indianapolis, the answer was nearly unanimous:

"We live in one."

In Indianapolis, there are 208,000 people living in food deserts, meaning they live in a low-income neighborhood more than a mile away from a grocery store. On Dec. 7, researchers and community members gathered to discuss the issue and provide possible solutions at the Data and Drafts event, research-based workshops that delve into community issues presented by WFYI Public Media.

In their presentation, "Getting Groceries: Food Access Across Groups, Neighborhoods, and Time," researchers Unai Miguel Andres and Matt Nowlin looked at community trends and the various components that create food deserts.

According to the USDA's definition of "low food access" and "low income," food deserts are low-income neighborhoods with low access to healthy food. For the sake of the presentation, a neighborhood was considered low income if it had a poverty rate of at least 20%, and a neighborhood is considered to have low access to food if one-third of the neighborhood lives farther than one mile

from a grocery store.

Andres began studying food deserts as a master's student at Ball State University and ran a blog titled "Food Deserts in Marion County." His analysis with Nowlin began in 2016 following the closing of Marsh Supermarkets, one of the major grocery chains in Central Indiana.

In a span of nearly four years, the amount of Indianapolis residents living in a food desert has risen 21%. According to the study, Black residents are more likely to live in a food desert than any other demographic. However, since 2016, the amount of Black Indianapolis residents living in food deserts has risen by only 4%, as opposed to a 15% increase for white and Latino residents. Along with two grocery stores opening in the downtown area between 2016 and 2019, public transportation played a role in the small increase for Black residents.

While the Martindale-Brightwood and Crown Hill neighborhoods are a food desert, the neighborhoods are not considered "transit food deserts" because residents have more convenient access to public transit. However, that's not the case for other areas of the city. Roughly 236,000 Indianapolis residents live in a transit food desert, and almost 10,500 of those residents are a part of the 10% of Indianapolis households who do not own a vehicle, or have limited access to a vehicle.

"When you draw a four-mile radius around Monument Circle, food access got better from 2016," Nowlin said. "That happens to be where a lot of Black residents live. Food access in neighborhoods farther from the city center, in those older suburbs, got much worse. Those older suburbs tended to be where white and Latino residents lived."

Throughout the presentation, which consisted of a PowerPoint presentation and group discussion, several causes of food deserts were examined, including poverty and a lack of access to transportation.

Poverty is the greatest factor in food deserts, and oftentimes makes it impossible for residents to move to an area with greater access to food. Indianapolis residents living in poverty are more likely to live in a food desert than the overall population, with 31% of low-income residents living in a food desert. While some programs, such as Lyft Pilot Support and Food Champions, were created in July of 2019 to increase accessibility to foods, food insecurity is still a large concern in impoverished areas.

Andres argued during the presentation "access to healthy food should be considered a human right." A lack of access to grocery stores is not just a hunger issue, it's a health issue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention break down healthy food and define food deserts as "areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet." During the group discussion, community members voiced their concerns about the effect that a lack of access to healthy foods has on children and the impact food deserts have on the overall health of the city.

The most obvious solution to Indianapolis' poverty rate, according to Nowlin, would be to raise the minimum wage.

"We looked at solutions we've seen from economists and economic literature about how to increase incomes and reduce the poverty rate," Nowlin said. "There's a lot of natural experiments where one city has raised the minimum wage while others haven't, and so you can compare the results in those two places to see what the difference is. Generally, what's been found is that a higher minimum wage has a decrease in poverty rate, and a lower poverty rate would lead to more access to foods and fewer food deserts."

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on


Moving on from citycounty council drama, Drake aims for Statehouse

As Belinda Drake stood in front of family, friends and supporters Dec. 5 at a community center to officially launch her campaign for state representative, she was celebrating more than a kickoff party.

Drake was starting fresh politically and trying to move up in the process.

Drake was one of two Black candidates barred earlier this year from running for a city-county council seat as a Democrat. Drake and fellow candidate Derris Ross had never voted in a primary election, which is part of the process for municipal candidates to verify their affiliation with the Democratic or Republican Party.

Drake, 34, didn't gather enough signatures to make the general election ballot as an independent and said she knew by late summer that she wanted to run for the state House of Representatives.

But after not mounting the necessary support to get on the ballot for a city-county council race, why does Drake believe she can now take aim at the Indiana Statehouse?

Drake wouldn't say how close she was to getting on the general election ballot but said her confidence in this new and larger political venture comes from the conversations she had with people in her community.

"We all have to start somewhere," she said, "but serving is

not about starting here or starting there. It's what you're called to do. It's what the community calls you to do."

The campaign launch party was at Hornet Park Community Center on the southeast side. Drake told the audience, sitting in two rows of round tables with #BelieveInBelinda signs, about being born into poverty in Gary and her journey to become an activist.

"I'm a strong Black woman," she told them from a podium with no microphone. "I know what it means to be resilient. I know what it means to fight."

A big bonus for Drake this time around is that she'll be running officially as a Democrat. Her campaign manager, Amanda Schutte, gave Drake credit for sticking with the party.

"Rather than deserting the party and walking away from the things that she stood for, she learned," Schutte said.

Drake would represent District 89, which includes some of the far east side and stretches southwest to Beech Grove. The district is currently held by Republican Cindy Kirchhofer, and it's unclear if she will run for reelection. Kirchhofer could not be reached for comment. The filing deadline is Feb. 7, 2020.

Drake's campaign has filed to form an exploratory committee, with plans to officially file for her candidacy in January.

Drake dismissed the idea that she's abandoning local politics be cause she felt wronged by the party, comparing her outlook to how she approached a basketball career that took her to IUPUI and introduced her to Indianapolis.

"If I continue to focus on the last game, we'll never win the next one," Drake said.

Drake won't go into next year's election as a political novice. Other than running for a seat on the city-county council, Drake has also worked with state Sen. J.D. Ford and was an intern with Congressman Andre Carson's office.

Still, she will be seen as a political outsider who's never been elected to office. Drake rejected the idea that there is such a thing as the right kind of experience that qualifies someone for political office.

"I think that now is the time for an everyday person who cares about the issues that are affecting House District 89, as well as a majority of Hoosiers, to finally take office," she said.

The first issues she would address, Drake said, include the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, which could raise revenue to pay for infrastructure programs and universal pre-K.

It is believed Drake would be the first openly gay Black woman elected to the Statehouse. Sen. Ford was the first openly gay lawmaker elected in 2018.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.


Paying it forward for the holidays

She died twice and came back to life. Had her vocal cords cut during a tracheotomy. Needed a breathing machine to pump oxygen into her body, a sensation she described as like being forced to do sit-ups nonstop.

Rita Green had cancer — twice. She did two stints in the hospital in 2006 and 2007 for a total of seven months. Doctors gave her three months to live and put her on life support for three weeks.

"There's not really a word that can describe the pain," she said. "It was just tragic. It was unbearably horrific."

During her second fight with the disease, nurses at St. Vincent Hospital donated Christmas gifts to her children. Even her parents, who visited every day from Plainfield, got gas cards.

"My first thought was everybody has to experience this at some point in their life," Green said.

And that's what she's been doing since. It started with her family getting donations for a single family, but it quickly grew.

Before the operation got too big for Green's family to handle by themselves, they would collect donations and drive around all day — starting around 10 a.m. and not finishing until 2 a.m. the next day — to drop off presents to families in need.

Green, 40, now has her own nonprofit, The Resource Hub, which this holiday season will put on the 10th Annual Community Christmas Giveback. The organization will serve more than 200 families, according to Green.

Families and their children — usu

ally from single-parent homes — get a hot meal to go along with toys and other gifts.

The deadline to make donations is Dec. 15. Requested donations include toys for boys and girls up to age 15, boys and girls clothing up to extra large, and $30 cash donations to provide a dinner for a family of four.

There are two drop-off locations: Runway Diva Boutique, 2719 E. 56th St., and The Riley Center, 4040 W. 71st St. Monetary donations are also accepted at theresourcehubfoundation.org. Call 317-721-7203 for more information.

Katina Roqueta has been with Green from the beginning. She even had Green at her house the day she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 — which also happened to be Green's birthday.

Roqueta, 38, said she's proud of Green for the amount of dedication she's shown in making Christmas a possibility for families who would otherwise have to go without for the holidays.

"I'm just praying that what she's doing, it would catch on nationwide," Roqueta said.

Green doesn't think it will be long before she and her staff of about 30 have to change the model of the Christmas giveaway event. Right now it's a standalone event, but that limits the number of people they can serve.

Green said the demand for their help is greater than what they can supply. She thinks the number of families served next year could get up over 300.

That means some changes are probably on the way, including possibly stretching events over a weeklong period to allow everyone who needs help to get it.

Green has been cancer free since 2007. She called her recovery "a miracle" with no explanation because radiation, chemotherapy and even experimental drugs didn't seem to help. She still remembers the shock from doctors and nurses when their patient started talking after having her vocal cords cut.

"This is my purpose," Green said. "I really don't feel like honor is due. I feel like this is what I have to do."

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

CHRISTMAS GIVEAWAY DONATIONS

The 10th Annual Community Christmas Giveback, organized by The Resource Hub, will allow families in need to get Christmas gifts and a hot meal.

Donations requested: toys for boys and girls up to age 15, boys and girls clothing up to extra large, $30 cash donations to provide a dinner for a family of four.

Dropoff locations: Runway Diva Boutique, 2719 E. 56th St., and The Riley Center, 4040 W. 71st St.

Deadline: Dec. 15

Learn more: Visit theresourcehubfoundation.org or call 317-721-7203