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Grassroots Grocery Distribution Is A First Step In Fixing Indy’s Food Deserts

A monthly reception at the Kheprw Institute, in the Crown Hill neighborhood northwest of downtown Indianapolis, brings a group of Indianapolis residents together to socialize, eat, and talk about how to make their community better.

The food is mostly homemade, cooked by some of Kheprw’s leaders – ground turkey spaghetti, chicken curry, broccoli, and a colorful salad.

Keith Paschall is a music producer who lives nearby. The food he usually eats, he confesses, is not as healthy as the Kheprw buffet.

“You end up in the more processed stuff, like … the frozen pizzas. I will admit, I eat the frozen pizzas,” Paschall says.

There are a variety of reasons why we grab certain foods at the grocery store – how much we can spend, how healthy we want to be, how adventurous we’re feeling – but none of that factors in if there is no grocery store nearby.

Last year, Crown Hill and the surrounding area lost its only supermarket when the Double 8 chain suddenly closed. In the year since, nothing has taken Double 8’s place. Now the community, like many in Indianapolis and around the country, is what's known as a food desert, a neighborhood without access to a full-service grocery.

There’s no easy fix for food deserts, but groups like Kheprw are part of a community-driven movement — residents are working to increase the supply of fresh food in their neighborhood.

Residents gather at Kheprw Institute, located in the Crown Hill neighborhood northwest of downtown Indianapolis, to discuss efforts to improve their communities.

To get groceries, residents like Paschall need to travel, but he says making the more-than-four- mile trip to the nearest Safeway or Wal-Mart, especially for other residents who don’t have a car, is hard to justify. The only other options are places like the Dollar General, which doesn’t offer much outside of those frozen pizzas.

“Double 8 was not a good place to buy food or produce,” Paschall says, laughing. “But we did it.”

After talking about the problem at several public forums, Kheprw created the Community Controlled Food Initiative, or CCFI. It’s based on a program called Fresh Stop, which they discovered in Louisville. A separate group now runs a Fresh Stop program from Tabernacle Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, about a mile from Kheprw.

“Basically a group of us were like, we should do something…we’ve got to take matters into our own hands,” says Mimi Zakem, an organizer at Kheprw.

Zakem and her team of volunteers take orders from residents the first week of the month and place those orders with a handful of local farmers. They pick up the food at the farmers market and then distribute it from their Crown Hill community center.

It's been a really beautiful and empowering experience for everyone involved. - Mimi Zakem, Kheprw Institute.

For $25, participants get one bag of produce that weighs at least 10 pounds, Zakem says. For seniors and anyone in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that cost is cut in half.

“It’s been a really beautiful and empowering experience for everyone involved,” Zakem says.

The program had 36 customers when Kheprw launched it five months ago, but it hasn’t grown much since, with 42 customers today. While that may seem like a small number, Ron Gifford, CEO of Jump IN, an Indianapolis initiative focused on reducing childhood obesity, says it’s a great example of the kinds of community efforts that might make a difference.

“If you want to end up with healthy people you have to create behaviors,” Gifford says. “The easiest way to create healthy behaviors is to create healthy environments in which those behaviors occur.”

Jump IN works with local organizations to launch programs that seek to build healthy environments.

“There are significant underlying issues of poverty that have to be addressed holistically in the community, because poverty underlies a lot of these issues, as we know,” Gifford says.

Gifford points to a map on his wall. It shows the city’s many neighborhoods, along with some of the food-related ideas that could transform them into healthier spaces: small-scale corner stores, mobile delivery of fresh produce to apartment complexes, and turning churches or community centers – like Kheprw is doing – into distribution hubs for healthy food.

“We have a lot of challenges in our community and neighborhoods that are often called food deserts. Sometimes we refer to them as food swamps, because the reality is there is typically not an absence of food in those neighborhoods, but there’s an absence of affordable nutritious food. So there are fast-food restaurants on most corners, there are little corner gas station stores, and they sell really poor-quality food from a nutrition perspective,” Gifford says.

Gifford says food deserts typically manifest in low-income neighborhoods, since profit-based retail grocery chains can’t turn a profit if customers aren’t spending enough money.

Just putting baskets of fresh vegetables that are not part of my diet in front of me and telling me, 'Hey! Feed your kids fruits and vegetables!' isn't a very effective strategy. - Ron Gifford, CEO of Jump IN

So getting healthy food into low-income communities addresses the supply problem. But Gifford says that’s only half of the solution – you also have to create demand.

“Just putting baskets of fresh vegetables that are not part of my diet in front of me and telling me ‘Hey! Feed your kids fruits and vegetables!’ isn’t a very effective strategy,” Gifford says.

Behaviors are learned at an early age, and health officials say kids raised by parents who don’t consistently serve healthy food typically lack those values once they’re on their own.

Sometimes a little extra effort is all it takes for people to get beyond their long-held food habits - and Paschall got a chance when he found a bag of green beans in his CCFI delivery a while back.

“I didn’t even like it when my momma was cooking it,” Paschall says. “But they were really fresh green beans. And I said, ‘Well, let me see, I think there’s a recipe for sautéing it.’ I had olive oil in the house, and some garlic. So I sautéed it, and I think I put in a little bit of bacon. And I loved it.”

Now when Paschall makes the occasional trip to Safeway, he says, he usually throws green beans into the cart.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media.