Indy is not a desert: Locals stand together to fight against food apartheid

The Department of Agriculture lists Indianapolis as one of the top five cities in the U.S. for the amount of people living in food deserts. A 2019 report by the Polis Center at IUPUI classified 42 percent of areas in Indianapolis as food deserts and 71 percent as having low food access. Out of the 83 stores selling food in Indy’s Northeast Corridor, only 11 sell fresh produce, meaning 20,000 of the 36,000 people in this corridor do not have access to fruits and vegetables.

One of the immediate causes is supermarket redlining, or when chain grocery stores refuse to establish shops in working-class and oppressed neighborhoods. The result is “food apartheid zones” throughout our city, which are associated with a drop in life expectancy of 10-15 years and higher rates of chronic illness. To combat these harsh realities, some organizations in Indy are seeking to address the symptoms and fight the disease: capitalism. The absence of supermarkets in poor and oppressed communities is justified by reportedly high crime rates and low profit potential, which is perfectly logical according to capitalism.

Centering community to combat injustice

This past February, Hope Packages (HP) teamed up with Soul Food Project (SFP) to discuss the relationship between food and building communities of care. A small grassroots organizing effort that distributes supplies to homeless people in Indianapolis, Hope Packages struggles in solidarity with Soul Food Project, an urban farming organization that offers access to fresh produce, education, and employment. Led by Danielle Guerin, SFP creates equitable pathways to food justice, practicing collective memory and knowledge building. Teens from Youth Grow Indy detailed their involvement as paid food growers working alongside Guerin.

Seated together at the Martindale-Brightwood Public Library, our discussion organically turned toward point five of Hope Packages’ 10-Point Program. This point calls to end food deserts through the guarantee of equal distribution of high-quality and affordable grocery stores in all neighborhoods. Michele, one of the teens from the program, aptly questioned why Hope Packages uses the language of food deserts, rather than food apartheid. Her suggestion sparked our interest, motivating us to investigate further and intentionally adapt our language, thinking, and action.

Farmer and food justice activist Karen Washington catalyzed the growing movement away from the language of ‘food deserts.’ In an interview with Guernica, she explains that food desert is an “outsider term” imposed upon communities. It has the implication of “barren ground” that ignores the reality that people do have food, it just isn’t nutritious or culturally appropriate. We should use “food apartheid” instead, because it takes the entire food system into account, including race, location, religion, and money, and also acknowledges that the problem is rooted in systemic denial of access, which is not a neutral or apolitical process. Whether intentional or not, this “supermarket redlining” is created and perpetuated by powerful actors controlling our governments and large corporations. Food apartheid is a widely occurring phenomenon, and Indianapolis is no exception.

The SFP executive director first encountered the term in 2018, when she met Karen Washington at a Farmer’s Union conference. Guerin explained to us how ‘food desert’ is “just not a good term…people are here in the neighborhood…it’s not a desert, things are living, things are alive, it’s not a barren location.” Growing up in a neighborhood affected by low access to fresh produce and healthy food greatly impacted Guerin, and motivated her efforts to address the roots of this issue. “I think about why did the policies and systems come into place that created this issue where everyone has to leave their neighborhood to go get food.” With car dependent infrastructure in Indianapolis, people who rely on public transportation and live in food apartheid zones are faced with a tough predicament in accessing affordable, healthy food. 

Across the street from the library, Guerin pointed to the nearby Safeway supermarket chain:

“Because it’s the only option, the prices are so expensive and they’re able to capitalize on the needs of the neighborhood because they know that the demand is so high. They’re pretty much the only supplier, so they can charge whatever they want. These are the kinds of things I think about when I speak about food apartheid.”

The exploitation and inequalities caused by capitalist agriculture are usually rendered invisible to many of us. It is through conversations like this one with Soul Food Project, that we are able to peel back the layers and make connections between our struggles. Guerin emphasized that “food should not be a commodity, it is a necessity.” We must think about the corporate and governmental systems currently in place that shape our thinking around how we value food, and who we prioritize having access to it.

Fighting food apartheid

Soul Food Project was established in 2017 to advance food justice in a culturally competent way in Indianapolis. After Danielle Guerin graduated with a degree in business from Bradley University, she returned home to the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood. Danielle explained why she began this radical urban farming initiative, “really, what it is, is centering the needs and wants of the people who are producing food, consuming food, and distributing the food, instead of centering the needs of the corporations and governments.” Part of centering community needs includes surveying the neighborhood to assess what residents will actually use in their cooking, “Often when people talk about food security, they talk about the availability and access, but then they don’t talk about having the culturally appropriate food.” This is an important part of their efforts to transform our relationships with food and the people who grow it.

This project is also transforming the ways people in the neighborhood think about the land and the soil from which their food grows. Environmental contamination is an essential feature of food apartheid, and it is very visible in Martindale-Brightwood. From 1946 to 1965, an American Lead plant operated in this neighborhood. In 1970, the smelter burned down, contaminating the soil in the region with lead. To combat this problem, Guerin added a foot of mulch to the lot, followed by layers of cardboard, straw and topsoil. Guerin’s work goes beyond environmental restoration. Soul Food Project offers affordable produce boxes, runs a paid apprenticeship program teaching sustainable agriculture, provides a tool library for other growers in the city, and recruits local teenagers for a paid leadership and farming program. This project is especially relevant today as we continue to face environmental crises; Guerin articulates that “we are making sure our soils are healthier and people are happier [so that we can] be resilient in the face of climate change.” In order to do this, we must build up our collective memory through inter-generational engagement.

Michele, one of those teens in the program, elaborated on why she suggested the shift in our Hope Packages language from food desert to food apartheid, “when it comes to addressing food apartheid and how I think of it…we have a lot of resources in the U.S. that could easily be used to help people in this situation, but [the governments and corporations] refuse to use them to help us have the resources we need in our neighborhoods.” This is a large reason behind Hope Package’s efforts to build unity through solidarity. By interrogating the root cause of homelessness (which we see as the capitalist system), we are contending with the systemic barriers that affect all poor and working class people in Indianapolis, including those of us living in food apartheid zones. 

Americorps Public Ally, Mary Bradley, works at SFP with Michele and other teens in the youth program. They recommend reading Food, Land, and Us, an illustrated zine about U.S. agriculture, ‘it breaks down like what is the farm bill, why is it important to not only farmers but to your school, your education, to a lot of those things because a lot of the money that’s coming for your food goes in through the farm bill.” Through reading, Bradley was disappointed to find out that in 2023, only 1 percent of the United States federal budget goes toward food and agriculture, whereas 62 percent goes toward militarism (Source: Office of Management and Budget). From that statistic, we can clearly see our government’s priorities.

As organizers of Hope Packages, we believe that is up to us to work collectively with our communities to empower each other as we fight for a better world. As we navigate increasing environmental crises and climate change, fostering resilience and building unity through solidarity is key. Check out ways to get involved with Hope Packages and Soul Food Project below! The struggle continues…

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Featured photo: Organizers with Hope Packages and Soul Food Project building together at a local library in February 2024. Credit: Indianapolis Liberation Center.