Food insecurity, hunger vex large swath of Indianapolis residents

Food insecurity and hunger are taking a toll on residents of Indianapolis and having a negative effect on health, education and the economy.

About 175,000 food-insecure people live in Marion County (with a population of 940,000), 47,000 of whom are children. The USDA defines food insecurity as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”

Community leaders came together Friday morning to discuss recent findings and efforts to address hunger at "Hunger and Health: Time for Creative Intervention," an event presented by IBJ and Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.

The event's purpose was to “reinforce the urgency of the call to action” around hunger and “raise the solutions up,” said Gleaners Food Bank President and CEO John Elliott.

The five members of the featured panel discussed in detail the links between hunger, health, education, transportation, employment and economic mobility.

“I think we have a false sense of security,” said Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Health Department. “Marion County’s unemployment rate is very, very low so [people think] we must be doing fantastic because most people have jobs.” However, she said, many people are hungry because their jobs don't pay a living wage.

Fixing hunger would require more investment both money and volunteer manpower, according to the panelists. The Sagamore Institute estimates an $82-million-per-year shortfall in the investment needed to feed the county’s entire food-insecure population.

“We may think there’s a lot of money being put out there, but it’s not meeting the entire need,” Caine said.

But not solving the issue is also costly. Paul Halverson, founding dean of the Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health, estimated that poverty and hunger create $3 billion per year in additional economic costs in Indiana, from health care expenses to lost economic opportunities.

That money could be much better spent on preventive public health care, he said. Indiana is the 39th-healthiest state in the nation, according to the United Health Foundation. That’s not a ranking we should be happy with, he said.

“There’s an ironclad linkage between good health and good economic prosperity,” Halverson said. “We need to recognize we can’t have one without the other.”

Sagamore Institute Vice President Troy Riggs urged the community to step up through volunteering to make progress on the issue.

“Money sometimes is a Band-Aid,” Riggs said. “We know what works. What it’s going to take is not just money, but people being actively involved.”

The panelists also drove home how hunger impacts the city’s schools, hospitals and neighborhoods.

In the Indianapolis Public Schools system, about 70 percent of the students qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price-lunch program. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said people often think hunger simply distracts students from learning because their stomachs are grumbling.

“Actually, it’s much more concerning than that,” Ferebee said. “Students who do not receive regular nutritious food often have cognitive delays … that result in achievement challenges and learning disabilities in our schools.”

That’s one of the reasons Ferebee’s administration established a no-cost breakfast and lunch program for all students, and new programs to feed kids during academic breaks. But he said the school community still struggles with hunger because “we’re not there over the evening and the weekends.”

In hospitals, St. Vincent Health CEO Jonathan Nalli said, “poverty and other social determinants such as lack of transportation, lack of water, lack of food, play such an impactful role in diminishing health outcomes.”

Nalli said, based on his organization’s research, a food-insecure family incurs $1,800 more in health care expenditures each year than those who have food security.

“That is a population that is going to quickly choose between food and health care expenditures and access to health care,” Nalli said. “Access or lack of access to good food impacts any chance and ability for somebody with diabetes to get the right care and keep their diabetes under control.”

The challenge has led St. Vincent to start a weekend feeding program, and to set up and expand food pantries in its emergency rooms. The doctors and nurses have also started asking patients if they have faced hunger or food insecurity during the last year, hoping that more data will allow them to better target resources and help hungry patients.

Pacers Sports & Entertainment Vice Chairman Jim Morris, who also is a former director of the United Nations World Food Programme, reminded the audience that “the burden of this issue generally falls on the backs of women and children.” About a third of children in Indianapolis are considered to be below the poverty level.

“My view of our city is, there’s nothing more important than taking care of our children,” Morris said. “If we take care of our kids, I believe everything else will take care of itself.”

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