State Representative Working to Remove Food Deserts from Indiana

Jun 14, 2017

Map showing food deserts in Indianapolis.
Credit Indiana Public Media

GARY - State Representative Charlie Brown is working toward putting an end to food deserts in Indiana.

"I am in the process of writing a letter to Jewel/Osco that says 'why not Gary, Indiana?  I'm in the process of sending a letter to CVS saying 'fill that void being left by Walgreens.  You can make money off of the city of Gary by locating within the corporate limits of Gary.'"

The American Nutrition Association defines a food desert as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.  This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers and food deserts are usually found in impoverished areas.  Brown, who represents District three, which covers Gary, says a major portion of his district is in a food desert.  
 
"It's so unfair and unfortunate that Gary is just dumped-on on an ongoing basis.  Yes people here be they school teachers, be they doctors, be they just plain ordinary workers in the steel mills or whatever, they are inconvenienced by having to get what their needs, be they pharmaceuticals, be they clothing, be they groceries, have to go outside the corporate limits of Gary to make those purchases."

And many people who live in impoverished areas, not only make very little money, but many don't have a car and they can live anywhere from a mile or more from the closest grocery store.

Gary resident Lorraine Lewis doesn't have a vehicle.  The proximity between her residence and the local grocery store costs her about one hour of her time just to take a trip to the market.  Lakeshore Public Radio asked Lewis how close the grocery store she uses is to her home.

"Maybe a bus ride, just one bus, well two busses now because I moved on 53rd, but when I was staying on 35th, it was just one bus.  When I was on 35th it may have been about a 20-minute ride.  Now that I live on 53rd, it's two bus rides, it's about an hour.  But you know you do what you do to survive."    

And now with the closing of many Strack & Van Til properties in Northwest Indiana, it makes the situation even more challenging.  Brown says the closings just compound the already challenging situation.

"I think a couple of the stores they are planning to close will be converted into a Jewel/Osco," Brown says. "But still nonetheless those stores will be outside of the corporate limits of Gary."

Brown says he hasn't spoken to the corporate leaders about why they don't locate their store in Gary, but he has spoken to lobbyists.  

"They come to me and ask for my vote to make it more convenient for them revenue wise or store wise and I say 'why don't you open a store in my district, within my city?' And the answer is always 'surveys that we do, indicate that-that would not be profitable to us.'  Well everything isn't on your bottom line.  It's a matter of providing services to the people who need those services.  And so I am taking the posture that don't come to me large box stores.  Don't come to me asking for support in the Indiana General Assembly if you are turning your back on my community."

Charles Jones, who is originally from Gary, but now lives in Merrillville, remembers what it was like when he lived a far distance from the closest grocery store.

"Where I used to live, I used to live on 11th and the closest one is on Grant.  So that's pretty far.  That's a good 10 minute drive."  Jones said the distance between the store and his house was about 15 miles.  "Usually if you want certain foods, you probably have to go into Merrillville,  because the grocery that's down here on Grant doesn't have a lot of it.  But it all depends on what your looking for and then again if you need groceries, you got to go to the grocery store.  It's out of the way because it's all the way on the other side of town, but you've got to do what you got to do."

Brown says more action should be taken.  "We need to rattle that chain, that saber and say 'no more will I spend my dollars with you, if you don't come into the corporate limits of Gary.'  There's no reason why there could not be a store at U.S. 20 and State Road 51. That large (area), right off of the expressway, that even those who are outside of the corporate limits of Gary could have easy access to stores there."

Brown says the Senate will study the food desert issue in September and October and there will be proposals made during the 2018 Legislative session.

"More than likely legislation, summer study committees will gear up sometime in August or September in which the issue of food deserts will be studied and then there will be proposals for legislation to correct those incidences across the state where many people do no have access to fresh foods.  Hopefully will have one, two, three pieces of legislation dealing with the matter."

A solution would help a lot of people, people like Lorraine, who Lakeshore Public Radio spoke to.  She was forced to end our conversation because she had to run for the bus with shopping bags in-hand.
 
"Hey gotta go!  Bye bye."

Lewis ran to her stop and ended-up making it on her bus.