Black residents of Marion County are likelier than people from any other racial or ethnic group in the area to live in a food desert, a low-income area with low access to healthy food.
That’s according to data from an online community information system at IUPUI called the SAVI program, which a year ago reported that this problem affected one-third of Marion County’s Black residents, compared to 21% of Latinx residents and 18% of whites.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the ability of all kinds of Marion County families to put food on their tables, it has exacerbated the disparities for minority residents.
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According to 2020 data from the Indy Hunger Network, more than 25% of Marion County residents are struggling to put meals on their tables, but Black residents are disproportionately impacted, with a hunger rate 50% higher than the city’s general population.
To address these issues, the City-County Council will vote Monday night on the creation of a Community Food Access Advisory Commission, which will evaluate and advance citywide food policy initiatives and provide advice to the City-County Council on matters related to food equity and healthy food access.
The commission will be tasked with identifying community needs and goals related to healthy food access, food equity and the food economy and will give priority to low-income and food-desert areas. It’s a step toward the commitment by the council and the Hogsett administration to data-driven, equitable policies and a future in which true equality is a reality.
The lack of access the commission seeks to address is about much more than hunger. It puts those who live in food deserts at higher risk of food-related health issues, like obesity and diabetes. It forces parents to make choices: whether to pay for food or electricity, food or clothing, food or medical costs or food or bus fare to work.
In a “normal” year, these increased risks would be troubling; in 2020, they have become issues of life and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed food-related health issues like obesity, Type II diabetes, and hypertension as being among the comorbidities linked to increased risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
At the same time, SAVI recently reported that “Blacks are hospitalized for heart failure and diabetes at twice the rate of Whites” and found that for hypertension, “Blacks are hospitalized at almost four times the rate of Whites.”
Little wonder, then, that Black residents in Marion County are more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and more likely to die of the virus than whites. It is not a coincidence that populations with less access to healthy, affordable food are the same ones at more risk of death in this pandemic.
The proposed commission’s goal of food equity is the concept that all people deserve access to healthy, affordable food. The idea may not sound particularly ground-breaking. Food is necessary to sustain life, and limited access to food impacts people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
Racial inequities like these are not coincidental or random. They have been created and sustained over time, and they will not disappear on their own. That’s why it’s critical we consider issues like food access through an “equity lens” rather than an “equality lens.”
Programs and strategies that treat everyone “equally” don’t acknowledge and therefore can’t mitigate the disparities that are the result of generations of structural racism. Equitable programs and strategies directly confront that legacy, thereby creating an opportunity for true equality.
La Keisha Jackson is an Indianapolis City-County councilor and chairwoman of its Community Affairs Committee.