Using old Nuvo newspaper racks, 24-year-old Sierra Nuckols has been creating food pantries, known as the Community Food Box Project, for communities struggling with food insecurity throughout Indiana for the past three years.
After studying apartheid in South Africa as a student in the Desmond Tutu Center Youth Fellows program, Nuckols returned to Indianapolis with a new perspective on food insecurity, or as she called it, “food apartheid.” Nuckols prefers this term to “food desert,” because she said the former forces people to look at the historic and social reasons food insecurity exists.
“If you look at the problem as a food apartheid and look at the systematic reasons why food insecurity and food deserts exist in the first place,” Nuckols said, “it’s clear that the issue is a social justice issue.”
African Americans are more likely to live in an area with food insecurity than any other demographic, with poverty being the main cause of food insecurity.
“Grocery stores and corporations can look at a map and know where they wouldn’t make money, and they won’t take their businesses there,” Nuckols said. “It creates this kind of segregation of food and resources.”
The idea for the pantries came from the “Little Free Libraries” that are scattered throughout the city, offering free books for people, often in exchange for one they leave behind. After hearing about a movement in Arkansas to create food pantries in a similar fashion, Nuckols decided to create food boxes in Indiana.
After Nuvo ceased printing in March of 2019, Nuckols worked with the news outlet to refurbish its newspaper boxes into pantries, often having children and prisoners help paint them.
“The boxes are put in areas with food insecurity, and then the community and partnered organizations donates food to the boxes,” Nuckols said. “It’s the responsibility of the organizations to keep the boxes filled when the community can’t.”
The pantries are always in need of non-perishable food items, canned food, diapers, hygiene products and ready-to-eat foods.
“The boxes don’t tackle the food desert issue,” Nuckols said, “but it does tackle the issue of immediate and emergency food needs.”
Among the partnered organizations are IPS School #87, Amber Woods Apartments and the Martin Luther King Community Center and the Indianapolis Recorder.
Recorder staff member and president of the Indianapolis Chapter of Indiana Black Expo (ICIBE) Jeana Ouattara has taken up the cause, getting the Indianapolis Recorder and ICIBE involved. She hopes more long-term solutions to food insecurity come from the effort.
“This is just a Band-Aid,” Ouattara said. “This problem can’t wait. People need to eat everyday. I used to work in education, and some kids only eat when they’re at school. Knowing there is a box with noodles in it or green beans for your kids helps to get by.”
Three years into the project, Nuckols has found the conversations started because of the food boxes to be the most impactful aspect of the project.
“You can think about how people are hungry,” Nuckols, who has never dealt with food insecurity, said. “But you don’t really know what it’s like unless you go through it. The learning experience of talking to people that are actually hungry and how much it affects them in their daily lives. … That’s what sticks with me the most.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.