Crates filled with green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, bananas and other produce items lined tables at Crestview Village South apartment complex.

Provided by Indiana University Health’s Garden on the Go program, residents could spend $7 to buy apples, oranges, potatoes and enough vegetables to last a week. No groceries are within a reasonable walking distance, and many residents of the area do not own vehicles to drive to the store for food.

So IU Health has brought nutritious food to them.

In Indiana, the physical landscapes that people mostly think of are sweeping prairies, dense forests and table-top farmland. But scattered throughout the state are more than 200 “deserts” that threaten the health of the population — what researchers call food deserts, or places where the access to nutritious food is limited.

Story continues below gallery

Health officials and food activists are working to make sure everybody can get fresh, healthy food if they need it. From traveling produce wagons to organized farmers markets, people have recognized the danger of these food deserts and are working to eliminate them.

“If you make healthy food easily available and affordable to people, they will buy it,” said Lisa Cole, manager of Indianapolis community outreach for IU Health. “The problem is making sure they can get it and afford it.”

Finding fresh fruits and vegetables has become impossible at times in Trafalgar. The town’s only grocery closed in 2011.

Though convenience stores are available to buy milk, lunch meat and dry goods such as soup and boxed meals, often the only option for fresh food is to drive to Franklin, Morgantown or Edinburgh.

‘Help meet that need’

The situation is partially what motivated Betty Davis, a local resident and member of the town council, to start a year-round farmers market at her former dinner theater.

“On the town council, one of the things we’re always looking at is what Trafalgar needs. We’re a small community, and some of the things that exist in other cities and towns just aren’t here,” Davis said. “We haven’t had that place to get fruit and vegetables since the grocery store left, so hopefully this will help meet that need.”

Trafalgar is one of the glaring instances of food deserts within the county.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are urban areas or rural towns that have no readily available grocery store nearby.

Often, areas identified as a food desert have only fast-food restaurants or convenience stores where people can buy food for themselves and their families. Though not always the case, most of these areas are low-income communities.

The USDA uses Census data to identify areas that qualify as food deserts — places where at least 20 percent of the population are under the poverty level and where people live more than one mile from a grocery store.

Indiana has 223 areas that are considered food deserts by the USDA, and five are in Johnson County.

Residents of downtown Franklin east of U.S. 31 and south of State Road 44 meet both criteria. Greenwood along U.S. 31 from County Line Road to Worthsville Road also qualifies.

Developing options

Trafalgar residents need to drive at least 6 miles to Morgantown if they want fresh fruit, meat, vegetables and other food, after the town’s only grocery store closed.

To lesser degrees, areas around Bargersville, western White River Township and the east side of Franklin also would be considered food deserts.

In the most recent County Health Rankings, Johnson County ranked 36th in Indiana on a score of access to healthy food and percentage of the population dealing with food insecurity. The rankings showed that 6 percent of county residents have limited access to healthy food, and 12 percent did not have access to a reliable source of food.

The Partnership for a Healthier Johnson County is not working on a specific campaign to combat food deserts. But officials are watching situations such as the one in Trafalgar closely, said Jane Blessing, executive director of the organization.

The solution wouldn’t necessarily have to be a new grocery store, Blessing said. Finding ways for smaller existing convenience stores to carry more fresh options could provide another option.

As county leaders do more research on the problems of food insecurity, they could look to Marion County for examples of work being done to eliminate food deserts.

IU Health launched Garden on the Go in 2011 as part of a comprehensive obesity prevention strategy, Cole said.

Statistics show that two-thirds of Indiana residents are considered overweight or obese. Fewer than 25 percent of state residents report getting the daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.

‘Clearly a huge issue’

The goal is to bring fresh food to high-poverty areas throughout central Indiana, where people don’t have the ability to get to a grocery store, Cole said.

“Rather than introducing a program, we wanted to identify what are the root causes of obesity. Access to healthy food is one of those causes, and that’s where we wanted to focus,” she said.

Often for less than they would pay at most grocery stores, residents can buy food they need, Cole said. The trucks accept cash, credit and debit cards, as well as government assistance such as food stamps and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan.

Since starting its program, more than 1,500 people have taken advantage of Garden on the Go. In the course of 76,000 sales, more than 300 tons of fresh produce has gone directly to the people who need it, Cole said.

In 2014, Indianapolis was ranked as the worst city for food access in a study by Walk Score, which promotes walkability in urban areas.

“We were No. 1 in something we really didn’t want to be No. 1 in,” said Whitney Fields, program manager for the Indy Food Council. “It’s clearly a huge issue.”

The Indy Food Council was formed to help connect people involved in all aspects of the food system, allowing them to work together to solve problems such as access and local production.

Though focused primarily on Marion County, the council has seen efforts put in place throughout central Indiana to help people get healthy local food, as well as expanding the market for that food.

‘A community effort’

When looking at the issue of food availability, Fields prefers to look beyond the limited scope of simply a food desert and examine the entire food system in place in central Indiana. Income levels in a particular area go a long way toward determining the access to food that people have.

“You can put a health food store in a community; but if they can’t afford to shop there, it’s not going to work,” Fields said. “You can start a farmers market, but if the residents can’t afford the produce, what’s the point?”

Instead of devising a one-size-fits-all solution, a better course of action is to look at the needs of individual communities and neighborhoods to figure out what will do best for them.

Food pantries have started accepting homegrown produce and vegetables and distributing them to needy families. The Indy Urban Acres, an eight-acre organic farm, has provided food to those pantries and other organizations.

Community gardens, planted by a neighborhood, church or other group, can help provide reasonable access to healthy food.

“Not everyone has time to grow their own food, but if it’s more of a community effort, they can focus their efforts and the community as a whole can benefit,” Fields said.

Community buying clubs, which allow people to pool their money to get a better deal on fresh, nutritious food, are also models that are working in Indianapolis.

Through the council’s food grants, the organization has helped organizations plant gardens, establish summer farming internships and set up farm stands in the city.

“These models might not alleviate food deserts but will at least help with some of the access issues,” Fields said.

At a glance

What is a food desert?

Urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. These communities may have no grocery stores or food access, served only by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.

Why is it a problem?

The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

How is a food desert determined?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies Census tracts that meet two criteria:

  • Low-income communities, based on having a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area median family income.
  • Low-access communities, with at least 500 people or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population living more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. The limit is 10 miles in the case of rural areas.

Food deserts in:

  • Indiana: 230
  • Johnson County: 5
  • Marion County: 52
  • Bartholomew County: 1
  • Shelby County: 0
  • Morgan County: 0
  • Hamilton County: 2

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

Pull Quote

“If you make healthy food easily available and affordable to people, they will buy it. The problem is making sure they can get it and afford it.”

Lisa Cole, manager of Indianapolis community outreach for IU Health

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.