Indiana 'Food Swamps' Contribute To Childhood Obesity, Chronic Health Problems

May 20, 2016

Non-profit groups are taking the lead in making healthy, fresh foods available in areas where convenience stores and fast food restaurants are the primary food sources.

A food desert is a neighborhood with low, or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables, or dairy and meats.

It is a growing national problem, and in Indiana 59 percent of counties have food deserts.

Some state lawmakers have proposed legislation to fight the problem.

But Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Jill Sheridan found much of the work remains with non-profits and community organizations.

It’s after school at IPS 58, a grade school in Indianapolis.

Six students huddle around a small table where Patachou Foundation volunteer Alana Bruggner has laid out an assortment of seeds for the children to try.

"How are they?" she asks. "They’re really good'" is the response."

The elementary school aged children plant another seed in a small one-pint container that each one has decorated with brightly colored paint.

Matthew Felrop helps the students plant seeds and tells them what to expect. "When the plant grows up take the whole plant out," he says. "This is basil.

Felrop is the Executive Director at the Patachou Foundation, which runs programs in five city schools in Indianapolis.

He says Hoosiers might have difficulty identifying who in their community is hungry.

"Hunger in the U.S. doesn’t look like it does in a third world country," he says. "Hunger with kids looks like maybe they’re overeating, they might be obese, they might have high blood pressure, diabetes at a young age."

About 15 percent of Indiana’s youth are overweight or obese, eighth worst in the nation.

Indiana State Representative Democrat Robin Shackleford points to a study done at Indy East Food Desert Coalition in 2013.

"Thirty-nine percent within ten minutes of a grocery store compared to 63 percent live within ten minutes of a convenience store or fast food restaurant," she says.

Shackleford says it’s not just a problem in Indianapolis. She says urban areas and some rural counties across the state have these same access issues.

That’s why for the past two years she has co-authored legislation that would provide funding for businesses, organizations or individuals that set up shop in low access areas.

"If you want to do a grocery store, farmer’s markets, delivery projects, food cooperative, and we’re also looking at the outreach," she says. "Teach people what are those healthy foods and what are the options."

Options like blueberries instead of french fries, cucumbers instead of chips, a caprese salad instead of pizza.

Shackleford says last session the legislation died because of a technicality but that a majority of lawmakers are supportive of the effort.

Much of the work falls back on organizations like the Patachou Foundation and Jump IN, a collective impact group that has a goal to reduce childhood obesity by teaching healthy habits.

CEO Ron Gifford says food access issues are the correlation between poverty and obesity.

"You lack ready access, you don’t have the resources to access food the way others do and you’re forced to eat food that is unhealthy," he says

In 2014 Indianapolis was ranked dead last in a report that ranked areas with healthy food access, also known as a food deserts.

Gifford says he’s heard people refer to these areas INSTEAD as ‘food swamps’.

"That conjures up the idea that there is an absence of food," he says. "The reality is, and particularly in these lower income neighborhoods, there is not a lack of food, there is an abundance of bad food."

An estimated 6 percent of Hoosiers have limited access to healthy food.

State Representative Shackleford says she will introduce another bill next legislative session, hopefully with funding attached.