Midtown Rallies to Transform Food Desert

by Thomas P. Healy

The rapid and widespread response to hardships caused by the closing of grocery stores exemplifies the way Midtown allies creatively collaborate to address neighborhood issues.

Double 8 Foods announced in July, 2015 that it was ceasing operations immediately, after 58 years in business, and closing its four remaining locations. Two locations, at 3902 N. Illinois St. and 555 Fairfield Ave., are within Midtown boundaries, while the store at 2907 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. served Midtown’s southwest tier.

A diverse set of initiatives emerged, each focused on a different time frame.

Immediate needs

Considerations of the immediate need for access to fresh fruit and vegetables as well as household items led the Martin Luther King Community Center (MLK Center) and the Indianapolis Fire Department to arrange for shuttle services from the 39th and Illinois location to nearby grocery stores.

Allison Luthe, managing director of MLK Center, told a July 28 meeting of North United Methodist Church’s Mission & Outreach team that she visited area dollar stores that sold bread and water to pass out shuttle service fliers. “They don’t have coolers so they don’t sell milk and cheese,” she said, noting that the food shelves were bare.

Luthe reported that expanding the shuttle service was unlikely because the Center’s staff take turns driving the shuttle van between other duties.

Eric Steele, minister of Mission & Outreach at North Church, proposed funding a driver and the committee agreed to provide funds to MLKCC to hire a local driver to continue offering a free shuttle on Saturdays.

In collaboration with the City of Indianapolis Department of Public Safety, Gleaners Community Action Relief Effort Mobile Pantry Program will continue its weekly stop at North Church every Saturday from 10 a.m. noon until Sept. 12.

Neighborhood initiatives

The Mid-North Food Pantry informed the Mission & Outreach committee about efforts to establish a consortium with area pantries to purchase milk and cheese in bulk. A recent renovation of the Mid-North pantry added refrigeration units at North Church’s facility at 3333 N. Meridian St. to help serve the estimated 1,200 families per month who make use of the service.

Rev. Steele also mentioned interest in improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables by increasing the frequency of the church’s monthly farmers market. He also proposed extending the season into the fall and possibly winter months by moving the market indoors at the church. He pledged to connect with vendors to see if they will have sufficient product to serve the need and to investigate the possibility of expanding offerings to include bread and dairy.

Joyce Moore, co-director of Urban Patch, a Midtown nonprofit organization with a mission to “make the American inner city better,” has launched Operation SAFE (Sustainable Access to Food for Everyone.) At a July 28 presentation at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, attendees were shown a variety of strategies for establishing an oasis in Midtown’s food desert. This includes fostering conversations about supporting a network of corner stores.

Long-term solutions

Last year USDA ranked Indianapolis worst in the nation for food deserts—residential neighborhoods lacking access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. Established community campaigns like the Mid-North Quality of Life Plan and the Midtown Future Plan acknowledge the need to confront food insecurity in the district. Recent conversations have included the potential for establishing a neighborhood food co-op and attracting larger grocers to Midtown’s central and southern sections.

State Representative Greg Porter’s District 96 includes the two shuttered Double 8 locations in Midtown. Reached by phone at his Mapleton-Fall Creek home, he said, “The loss of Double 8 is pretty devastating, but we have got to figure out what we can do and embrace a new way of thinking and a new way of servicing residents of Midtown. The community has articulated a need and we have to make sure the needs are met.”

Meeting those needs is part of the reason the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the City of Indianapolis declared 38th and Illinois one of three Great Places as part of the Great Places 2020 initiative to stimulate community development.

LISC deputy director Tedd Grain has been keeping tabs on all the neighborhoods affected by the store closures. “Food access is really important,” he said by phone from his downtown office. “Grocery stores and retail food outlets are important anchors for the community beyond just food—they are a component of a great place.”

Grain said LISC commissioned a retail market analysis for all Great Places that included looking at the feasibility of expanding food retail. The draft report is still under review but when complete will become part of the Great Places planning process. He said preliminary indications suggest the market could support a new grocery store at 38th and Illinois streets.

Joe Lackey, president of the Indiana Grocery & Convenience Store Association, thinks that local chains are succumbing to tough economic circumstances. “It’s not a problem unique to Indianapolis,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “It’s going on all over the country because the big-box guys came in and wiped out a lot of opportunities for those smaller companies to stay in business.”

He said the grocery store/supermarket model is based on high volume. “Gross markup is maybe 18 percent, and you’re looking for 2 percent profit, but nobody gets 2 percent,” he said.

Asked what he thinks about a draft market study that leans favorably toward a grocery store at 38th and Illinois streets, Lackey expressed reluctance. “I’m not qualified,” he said. “The market analysis that companies use to decide if they’re going to build a store are very extensive and very secret,” he said. “They have to do with age of the population, number of households, number of persons per household, and average income in order to determine whether to install or what type of store to install.”

It’s not greed that keeps stores out of inner city areas, Lackey said. “If there was a way to make a profit they would do it.” Lackey complained that retailers don’t get the same economic development incentives offered to manufacturers. “A lot of economic development rules don’t apply to retailers,” he said. “Manufacturers get tax exemptions, but not retailers.”

LISC’s Grain suggests other support is available. “LISC has lending products that would be available for any grocery store or retail developer or operator if they wanted to start a grocery,” he said. “Loans for inventory or for the building are tools that LISC has available right now as part of the portfolio of what we bring to the table.”

He said all that’s required is either a solid operator or a solid organization LISC could loan to. Oh—and a location.

In a brief phone conversation, Double 8 president Isaiah Kuperstein said he still owns the two Midtown properties and “would be willing to work with an entrepreneur or community organization to put them back into service.”

A version of this story appeared in the August/September 2015 edition of the magazine.