Merritt calls Hogsett’s food insecurity plan ‘complete waste of money’

Republican mayoral candidate state Sen. Jim Merritt on Thursday criticized Mayor Joe Hogsett’s plan to spend about $580,000 on programs to combat food insecurity in Indianapolis and said it “will likely make the problem worse.”

The plans include using public funds to transport people to grocery stores via Lyft, a “food compass” smartphone app, a mobile grocery store and on neighborhood “food champions.”

Hogsett’s plan, which received unanimous, bipartisan approval in June at a City-County Council committee meeting and is soon due to be voted on by the full council, “claims to address the problem of food deserts (but) is more political window dressing instead of serious problem solving,” Merritt said.

The federal government says that 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. Food deserts are areas abandoned by major grocers where it’s difficult to buy fresh produce and healthy foods.

Merritt specifically criticized Hogsett’s plan to spend $140,000 on six months of Lyft vouchers to transport poor residents in food deserts to grocery stores as “more of a corporate subsidy than community support.” And he also knocked the Hogsett administration’s creation of a $175,000 smartphone app to direct residents to food resources “a complete waste of money.”

“These dollars could be used to make actual community investments,” Merritt said at a Thursday press event.

Instead, Merritt proposed “providing tax incentives or subsidies to local food markets in areas with food insecurity” as well as “the creation of a food [tax-increment financing district] that would help support the communities most devastated by food disparity.” It is unclear what would be involved in creating a food TIF district. Merritt also proposed working with neighborhood groups to create more community gardens.

Hogsett campaign spokeswoman Heather Sager said “Senator Merritt’s half-baked ideas illustrate that he lacks understanding of the programs and initiatives that are already in place, and the solutions that the communities most affected by food insecurity have called for.”

And Hogsett’s administration pushed back on Merritt’s criticism, stating that it was addressing food insecurity both on a short-term and long-term basis. Hogsett plans to unveil more details of a 25-year plan to combat food insecurity during the upcoming city budget-writing process and is moving forward with the $580,000 proposal as a way to address short-term needs.

“If there was a way to simply pay grocery stores to stay open, I’m sure that Indianapolis and cities across the country would be employing that solution,” said Taylor Schaffer, the mayor's deputy chief of staff. “The reality is that the barriers residents face are multi-faceted and [this proposal] is seeking to address those challenges holistically.”

Schaffer said the Lyft pilot program is to help residents reach local grocery stores, and noted three of the four partner grocery stores that residents can get subsidized rides to are locally-owned, which will result in “directing dollars to local food businesses.”

Schaffer also defended the food compass app, which will direct residents to food resources such as pantries and help people overcome barriers to enrolling in federal nutrition assistance. She said the city has received some pushback, with residents asking, “isn’t that what Google is for?”

But she said it is much more complicated than someone just Googling the nearest grocery store. Many food pantries have requirements, like having a driver’s license, or have odd hours. The app will provide that information.

“It’s actually really complicated,” Schaffer said. “There’s not a centralized location to figure out which pantry [someone] would qualify for. Those things become hard to navigate.”

The app will also contain robot technology that will be “exactly like you have a social worker working with you” helping users obtain food resources and learn about enrolling in federal nutrition benefits. However, the app will not allow someone to directly enroll in SNAP because it is a federal program.

Schaffer also noted that the city has also worked with other funding sources to try to invest in local businesses. For example, the city’s Office of Public Health and Safety applied this year for a grant on behalf of local grocer A&I Variety Meats and Produce.

And the city’s federal funds supported a new affordable grocery, called Cleo’s Bodega, at Flanner House.

Still, Merritt says Hogsett’s efforts aren’t enough.

“We simply deserve better,” Merritt said.

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