Indianapolis mayoral candidates compete over food-insecurity plans

Republican mayoral candidate Jim Merritt on Thursday criticized Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s new proposal to address food insecurity in parts of the city, and proposed his own ideas to address the issue.

Merritt called Hogsett’s plan, which is working its way through the City-County Council, “yet another Band-Aid solution … instead of providing local food sources right where the problems lie.”

The Hogsett administration’s proposal—which comes as the mayor promises to soon put forward a 25-year plan to address food insecurity issues—would try to accomplish four things if passed by the full City-County Council. A council committee unanimously passed it in early June.

First, Hogsett’s plan would allocate $200,000 to create a mobile grocery store that would travel around to neighborhoods without full-service grocery stores. Second, it would allocate $175,000 to fund a “food compass” app that would help people locate groceries, food pantries and markets, as well as help people find out whether they qualify for nutrition assistance. Third, it would spend $140,000 to partner with ride-sharing service Lyft to provide subsidized rides to area grocery stores. And four, it would spend $65,000 to train people in neighborhoods to learn about food advocacy and organizing.

Instead, Merritt said he would address what he calls a “food apartheid” in the city by funding small market bodegas modeled after one at Flanner House; help charter schools and IPS schools participate in a “food rescue” program to repurpose food that would otherwise go to waste; create more urban gardens in the city; and hold a food security summit.

“A Merritt administration will support food bodegas citywide," he said. "They’ll be modeled like the new bodega at Flanner House. They’re great ideas, because they can be easily managed, have low overhead, and often utilize fresh, recaptured food."

Merritt, who announced the plan at a Walmart Neighborhood Market on the far-east side that is closing next month, said “it is time this issue is met head on and boldly addressed." 

Merritt said he would ask Walmart officials to donate the property the company is leaving at East 38th Street and Franklin Road for use by the community.

He also said he has reached out to restaurateur Kimbal Musk to help with urban garden programming. Musk co-founded Big Green, a not-for-profit that supports garden programs for school children. 

The federal government says about 175,000 people in Indianapolis—or about 20% of the population—face food insecurity, meaning that they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

After Merritt's announcement, Hogsett's campaign spokeswoman defended the mayor on Twitter.

"Mayor Joe has been a champion of reducing food insecurity since before he took office, when he held a Food Insecurity Summit in December 2015," spokeswoman Heather Sager tweeted. "Since then, he's spearheaded a number of forward-thinking initiatives to tackle this issue."

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