Status of hunger in Indianapolis

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors, Photo credit: KIPP charter school, courtesy MicroGreen Project

Dave Miner discovered a lot as a chemistry student in grad school. But it was outside the lab that he made his most poignant find. He discovered hunger.

It all started with a book — “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” by Ron Sider — that Miner received from a friend. Never hungry a day in his life, Miner was inspired by the book’s message, and began what has become a 30-plus-year campaign of volunteer service to help those without food.

In 2009, starting with a diagram of how food was getting to the hungry, he approached Gleaners’ CEO Pamela Altmeyer. She said, “Oh, you sort of got that right, but you didn’t have this, you didn’t have this.” The two began planning an effort to bring major players together to help the large, complex system work better. At the same time, Cindy Huber of Second Helpings was talking with the mayor and trying to get a similar effort started.

The three connected, began informational meetings, and the Indy Hunger Network was born. The coalition has representatives from leading anti-hunger organizations in Indianapolis, both public and private, and seeks to ensure that anyone who is hungry can access nutritious food.

Until recently, Miner served as chairman of the Indy Hunger Network, and is now chairman of the nonprofit’s projects committee.

How many people are hungry in Indianapolis? According to SAVI, the Polis Center’s free data source, the poverty rate in Marion County well outpaced the state and nation, increasing 45 percent from 2005 to 2012 compared to a 28 percent increase in Indiana and 20 percent in the U.S. A Rutgers University survey commissioned by the group in 2014 identified that nearly 200,000, or 21 percent of the county’s residents, need some food assistance.

Through their work together from 2010 to 2013, the Indy Hunger Network increased the number of meals provided in Marion County by 40 million. According to Miner, the network is sort of the conductor of the orchestra. It wasn’t the network itself, but the individual food providers that had the biggest increase in meals.

And while the network has made progress, there have been some setbacks.

Since 2013, there have been reductions in food assistance to SNAP recipients. In Indianapolis, SNAP accounts for two-thirds of the food provided, so anything that happens with SNAP is a big deal.

An emergency provision that boosted SNAP benefits in the wake of the 2008 recession expired late in 2013. Miner said that amounted to about 12 million meals. “Since then, there’s been another change that resulted in a huge drop in SNAP in the last year. Some of that is good because it means the economy is improving, and people don’t need the help anymore or don’t qualify for it, but some of it is people who still need it but aren’t able to get it for whatever reasons,” said Miner.

Another change in 2015 in Indianapolis was the abrupt closing of the Double 8 stores. For more than 50 years, the grocer was there for the underserved. This has added to the challenge, but according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture map, Indiana has 500 neighborhoods that are considered food deserts, and 125 of them are in Marion County, so the problem was already there.

In March, prompted by the Double 8 closings and this national problem, Indiana Democratic Congressman Andre Carson, sponsored the Food Desert Act (H.R.4833) designed to provide loans to nonprofits and others interested in providing food access in deprived neighborhoods. The bill would allocate $150 million to the USDA that would be distributed as 30-year loans, with no entity receiving more that $250,000, to support the establishment or operation of grocery stores in underserved communities.

Although the bill has received positive response and support from some national organizations, it hasn’t moved in Congress. In an election year, any bill that adds government support can be a hot potato, according to Nathan Bennett, legislative director for Carson. Bennett is hopeful that it will gain traction in 2017.

These loans would encourage people to open grocery stores featuring healthy, unprocessed foods. The loans, which the USDA would provide to each state, would be available to nonprofits or for-profit ventures wanting to sell goods for prices at or below the local going rates.

“One of the biggest differences between this and other similar grant programs is you have to continually re-up the money, and that makes you subject to politics. That’s something that we’ve seen with a lot of these programs over the last couple of years. You have great programs in place, but they’re subject to that political dynamic and so they’ve been defunded or flat funded or funded at a level that’s really not workable,” said Bennett.

Since its start in 2009, Indy Hunger Network has initiated programs to enhance access to healthy food. Some of its efforts include:

Starting in 2013, by doubling Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) purchases on local fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets up to $20 per day, Fresh Bucks was designed to incentivize healthy eating.  This year, Gleaners and Kroger were awarded funding to pilot a program at Kroger’s store on Linwood Avenue.

Pantry Partners was created as a collaborative effort designed to develop a network of leading pantries across Marion County. The effort is led by Gleaners with support from Interfaith Hunger Initiative, St.Vincent de Paul and Indy Hunger Network.

Summer Servings, a USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, is administered by the Indiana Department of Education, it provides meals and snacks to anyone age 18 and under during the months that school is not in session. Indy Hunger Network has provided outreach and marketing to increase summer participation.

The proposed legislation has a competitive element to it. An application would receive bonus points if the plan includes hiring workers who reside in the underserved community, sourcing food locally, offering classes or education to the public, demonstrating expertise in the grocery industry and not selling alcohol or tobacco.

“Those are actually bonus points on their application if they have plans for those. We cannot tell them not to sell alcohol and tobacco because in a lot of areas that’s the most profitable product or set of products. So as long as they’re providing the food, that’s all we’re really looking for, but if they’re able to make it work by hiring people and by not selling alcohol and tobacco that’s for the better,” said Bennett.

While the bill slowly makes its way through Congress and is not set in stone, Bennett encourages input from the nonprofit community.

“We would like to hear from anyone who is interested in being on the team. If people have better ways to approach this, we’re very interested in hearing from you,” he said.

The Indy Hunger Network, which has been an all-volunteer-led organization, has made some changes, too. With 200,000 people needing assistance, the nonprofit recently hired Kate Howe as its paid managing director. A biologist by training, she has experience with Midwest Invasive Plant Network, a collective group, and most recently, served as board chairwoman of the Mid-North Food Pantry.

“I think we’ve all come to realize that we’re all novices at this kind of effort,” said Miner. “I think there’s huge power in bringing people together, getting clear on what the common objective is, but it’s a very special kind of deal. Nobody reports to you, everybody’s there literally as a volunteer. So I think we’ve come to realize that there’s wonderful power in the collective impact model, but also it’s a specialized deal and a unique challenge.

“We’ve made a ton of progress, but there’s still some more obvious things to do. I’m really pleased at how everybody has done and stayed in there.”

This fall, Indianapolis can showcase its efforts when it hosts the national Hunger Free Summit. The event, on Oct. 5-6, is typically held in Washington, D.C. For more information about the summit, click here.

“It will be good to feature Indianapolis,” said Miner.

 

 

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