Marshawn Wolley

Marshawn Wolley

Recently, city-county council Proposal 258, which addresses food deserts and food insecurity, entered the public sphere.

The proposal passed one city-county council committee but will proceed to the full council for a final vote on July 15.

Shellye Suttles, a Black Ph.D. and former economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the city’s first “Indy Food Czar.”

She’s been in the community working with stakeholders developing and delivering on various food insecurity solutions in Indy’s food deserts for nearly three years.

While there could be some tweaks or additions, Proposal 258 is an excellent start at a complex problem in an imperfect world with limited resources.

There are a few elements to the initiative: 1) an app called the Food Compass 2) the Lyft Project 3) mobile grocery market and 4) Food Champions program.

There are some important facts that we need to know about each element.

The Food Compass app provides important information people need to know about accessing food in an area, for example when utilizing a food pantry.

Not all food pantries provide the same kinds of foods and there may be different eligibility requirements for people.

For example, some food pantries only provide dry goods while others might provide meat and/or fruits and vegetables. It’s also possible that what is available day-to-day could change.

The app could be used to help people understand their food options in a variety of ways including assistance with SNAP eligibility — or what we used to call food stamps.

Information that used to be passed along by word of mouth will all be contained in one location in an accessible app.

According to Pew Research Center, 71% of individuals making under $30,000 own a smartphone so the thought is this should help a good number of people struggling with food insecurity.

The Lyft Project is a public private partnership between the city, CICF, Mount Carmel Church and Lyft. The partnership requires that a program participant live in a food desert.

Lyft will provide subsidized rides to partner grocery stores in the food desert area — as a way of supporting businesses like A & I Variety or other grocers that operate within a food desert.

Rides that would cost $16 will only cost $2 as part of this program.

The mobile market is an effort to revisit the popular and successful Green Bean Delivery service with a twist.

The idea is that while we can bring people to grocery stores, we can also try to bring the grocery store to the people.

Mobile grocery markets seem to be an idea that has picked up recently and they can be found in Chicago, Seattle, New York and Minneapolis.

In other cities, a retrofitted bus or vehicle regularly rotates to various locations throughout a week in food deserts.

There may need to be some ordinance work to allow for this kind of business activity, but basically, residents would be able to go to a known location to purchase groceries throughout the week.

It’s a novel idea.

Finally, around $65,000 is supposed to go to the Food Champions program, which is meant to support 10 neighborhood food advocates. These food advocates might start new efforts or support existing initiatives addressing food deserts or food insecurity.

Community “Aunties” like Shelley Covington and other community leaders are right to hold the city accountable for ensuring that the program focuses on various areas throughout the city and quite frankly demanding more direct support of grocery stores in food deserts.

At the end of the day, this plan has the potential to have an immediate impact. 

But this can’t be our only plan.

Long term, our community needs to figure out how to support Rep. Robin Shackleford’s efforts to develop a healthy food financing fund and healthy food financing program that would support the kinds of investments in for profits and nonprofits working in food desert and on food insecurity issues.

Since next legislative session isn’t a budget year, a key step forward to look for next session would be the creation of a healthy food financing program state account, so that the state could take advantage of both federal and private sector dollars other communities take advantage of already.

With over 600 census tracts (out of just over 1,400) designated as underserved or having low access to healthy food by the U.S. Agricultural Department, you would think legislators could come together on this issue.

Congressman Carson has sought to advance legislation to provide federal funding to support smaller grocery stores operating in food deserts as well.

The community has been frustrated by this issue for some time — especially the politics of it.

And with the recent announcement of the closing of a Walmart on the east side it feels like the problem is getting worse.

But to be fair, while there is always more work to do, Dr. Suttles our first “Indy Food Czar” has done the heavy lifting of creating some major wins for our community.

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