The recent closing of 10+ Marsh grocery stores across Indianapolis has me reflecting on the challenge of food access in Central Indiana. I remember as if it were yesterday when all the Double 8 stores closed in our communities.
“Oh man!” said Paulette Fair as she tried to get into the closed store. “I need carrots and collard greens and chicken for lunch today. This is my neighborhood store…gosh.”
-Paulette Fair program Director of Kheprw Institute, quoted by WTHR on the day of the Double 8 closings, July 23rd, 2015.
The closing of Double 8 led to a multitude of community meetings in various neighborhoods impacted by the store closings, with many different perspectives about how to address this challenge. These conversations included efforts to find private and public dollars to construct supermarkets in these communities and many discussions about the creation of food co-ops to address this challenge.
Of course as many of you know, Kheprw Institute’s effort to address this concern led to the gathering of residents and other supporters to launch the Community Controlled Food Initiative. This community led, low monetary capital, high social capital development was our effort to demonstrate the power and agency of residents to address and create solutions to meet our local needs.
While, of course we realize that this approach to food access alone will not solve the food access crisis in our community, it was our effort to assist community to empower itself to have agency in addressing this challenge.
Almost two years later, the closings of the Marsh grocery stores is the latest tremor in the food access environment. A cursory review of the last two years I suspect will show very few solutions or efforts that have had any real impact on food access in these communities.
Why is that the case?
While there are a multitude of factors that are contributing to this local epidemic, some would argue a national (or even global) pandemic of scarce access to healthy food in communities, there are a couple of critical factors I would like to highlight:
- Poverty. From 2000 to 2010 poverty in Marion County almost doubled (12% to 21.1%). Put simply, if you can’t afford food, you can’t buy food. As I have stated before, the food desert problem is actually a problem of economics. There is an economic desert that exists in these communities.
- Competition. The national competition in the grocery industry is redefining food distribution and food access in communities. Smaller grocery store operations will find it more and more difficulty surviving in low- and middle-income neighborhoods. It seems to me that the supermarket as we know it is going the same way as the shopping mall; in a word the supermarket will no longer be a viable option for providing food in low-middle income residents.
- Top-Down Decision Making. Decision making processes (public and private sector) are grounded in using an old model to address new kinds of problems – designed for yesterday’s problems, not today’s crises. This approach leans on hierarchy with heavy emphasis on traditional data-driven approaches that exclude the intelligence that already exists in these communities most directly impacted. This hierarchical model also leans on existing anchor institutions, non-profits, public and private leaders, whose own sustainability is tied to this old model. Put simply, the abilities of decision makers to think creatively and out of the box is hindered by their own reliance on a model that is dysfunctional at best.
- Flawed Policy Priorities. To give another example of why the model itself hinders creativity, the push to grow food in urban communities – empty lots, backyard farms, etc – has been given only marginal material support. These community rooted solutions can lead to increase of social networks that can then impact food access because people are growing their own food; however, it does not lend itself to increasing the tax base through the traditional economic development model that these institutions and agencies are tied to. Therefore these approaches to addressing the challenge are not supported with the same level of resources and supportive policies (tax credits, incentives, zoning policies) as the business and development community receive under the banner of community revitalization.
- Professional’s Disconnect from Community. The other challenge related to the traditional model is that the professionals who work in those spaces, many of whom genuinely want to make a positive difference, work within infrastructures that are not designed to have them spend quality time engaging with the real people in communities. Were they to build these relationships, they could learn from the folks who are already creating solutions to these problems every day – figuring out how to eat, work, and thrive in these spaces. In addition, the professional class has absorbed the cultural lens of the institutions they get their education from and later work for, coming to believe that they have the answers and that these communities are uninformed. The few professionals who challenge and raise questions about this approach are often treated as rogues and punished professionally for their critique. This is not news. We have all seen it and experience it everyday.
So what do we do about it?
First and foremost, residents must lead.
Residents must restore and strengthen their social networks and have the courage and strength to take their voice back and reclaim their power to be the decision makers in their own communities.
The professional class, if they are sincerely interested in helping and supporting these communities, must spend quality time building relationships with people who live in these neighborhoods. These relationships cannot be grounded in “measurable outcomes” other than relationship building. So in a word, we must find ways to support existing residents who are already working to lead community solutions to provide food to themselves, their families and neighbors.
These resident led initiatives must find ways to build capacity to encourage and challenge the current decision makers and infrastructure that dictates how public resources are directed. But what is even more critical, is that we must use our own agency, social capital, hands and resources to turn this crisis into an opportunity to build more self-reliant, self-determining and empowered communities.
Join us for a public forum at Kheprw Institute on Sunday May 21, 3-5pm Indy Food Crisis: A Citizens Food Assembly. We will encourage residents to organize themselves to increase their voice and build relationships through supporting the launch of the Citizens Food Assembly. Click here to RSVP.
To learn more about the Community Controlled Food Initiative visit food.kheprw.org