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What Does a Food Desert Look Like in Indianapolis?

July 7, 2016

Food is essential to life. All of us must eat. But, the amount of food we eat, and the quality of that food can be highly variable. Also (and let’s admit it), even the most well intentioned of us do not consume a healthy diet all of the time. We rationalize by claiming lack of time to shop for and prepare the kinds of foods we should, we may believe that the changing and conflicting information about what constitutes a healthy diet is confusing, or we might just confess that we like the taste of some foods that we know are unhealthy for us. Regardless of what we tell ourselves, most of us know that we have a choice, and these are just flimsy excuses that we can overcome if we want to. However, for thousands of low-income people in Indianapolis, access to healthy food is a real barrier and not just a flimsy excuse. Low-income people in “food deserts” have substantial distance and cost barriers preventing access to healthy food.

What is a food desert? One oft-cited measure, developed by the USDA, defines it as a Census tract where at least 20% of the population is living below the poverty line, and where at least 33% of the population is more than one mile from a food store with fresh produce and meats. To interpret the designation, it’s helpful to know a bit about how it is calculated. The USDA’s method is based on Census tract data (tracts that meet the 20% poverty test), it assumes that all of population in each square kilometer of those tracts is located in one spot (for ease of measuring distances), and then it measures the distance to known full range grocery stores. The designation has limitations, but it has the advantage of focusing on poverty level populations, who cannot easily drive to a store more than a mile away. By the USDA’s definition, large portions of the City of Indianapolis, most notably on the east side, are designated as food deserts. To be specific about the population living in Partners In Housing properties, three properties with a total of 91 units (18% of the PIH total) are located inside of one of these designated areas. Four additional properties with 241 units (another 47% of the total) are located on the edge of, but just outside of, a USDA-designated food desert.

There is, however, another way to define proximity to healthy food that I think better describes the food access problems of the PIH population. That method uses a more modern technology and is called a “Walk Score.” Information about Walk Score is available through a smart phone application developed primarily for people looking for apartment rentals. Using GPS data that is continuously updated by users, it provides information on the distance to many types of amenities, including groceries, and actually lists (and provides distances to) the stores nearby. The app developers also did citywide food desert calculations and, sadly, found Indianapolis to be ranked the lowest of any U.S. city of over 500,000 regarding food access. A dismal 5% of the Indianapolis population is within a five-minute walk of a full range food store. In the highest ranking cities, over 50% have this access, with New York ranked highest at 72%. This Walk Score walk-time measure works better than the USDA measure for the PIH residents because few of them are able to drive, and a mile (the USDA standard) is a long way to walk and lug groceries. Public transportation is an option but only adds to the expense and inconvenience of shopping. The Walk Score app also allows us to rate food access for individual PIH properties. Only one of them (with 4% of the PIH population) meets the five-minute walk test of the Walk Score analysis. Although that’s pretty close to the 5% average for Indianapolis, average in the city with the worst food accessibility in the U.S. is not good enough for a population with severe travel constraints. In fact, it can be an insurmountable barrier to healthy eating and, in turn, the healthy body and mind that we all want for ourselves and our children.

A major consequence of a food desert on low-income persons, particularly when combined with related cost barriers, is that they usually opt for cheaper, high energy-density, foods that are high in added sugar and fats. These foods are filling and satisfying, they are more readily available in food deserts, and there is societal pressure to consume them (they are ubiquitously advertised and an all too common part of the American diet). But, we know this diet is bad for us. Anyone who doubts it should review the 2004 documentary film “Super Size Me” where the film maker, Morgan Spurlock, consumes only the food available from the McDonald’s restaurant menu for a one-month period. Almost all of these foods meet the sugary and fatty definition of high energy-density. He was very ill at month’s end, and it took him a year-and-a-half to lose the weight he gained and recover his health. What’s more, there’s also a connection to mental health. Recent brain research is suggesting a relationship between this kind of low-nutrient diet and mental illness (particularly depression), as well as having a negative impact on brain development during childhood.

That’s especially bad news for Partners In Housing residents. The majority of those residing in PIH properties were homeless before coming to PIH. Many struggle to maintain sobriety, to manage a mental illness, and/or to stabilize their physical health; and, the PIH staff helps them with that struggle. The chances of success are improved if the nutrients they take in are strengthening their bodies and minds, not weakening them. That is why access to food is so important. The first step toward better nutrition, and it should be a citywide priority, is to shrink the many food deserts in Indianapolis and improve access to food. These deserts are not the only barrier to better nutrition, but it is the first barrier that should come down.

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