Panel: Fighting hunger requires community-wide effort

Tackling central Indiana’s significant hunger and food insecurity problem requires a web of collaborations, business and community leaders said at a panel discussion Thursday.

Panelists highlighted a broad range of efforts already in place to tackle the problem, from a food bank located at Ivy Tech Community College’s Noblesville campus to affordable-housing initiatives that limit the percentage of a family’s income going toward mortgage payments.

But more needs to be done, according to the five panelists participating in the Hunger and Health event presented by IBJ and Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.

“We are so focused on collaboration. None of us can do this alone,” said Sarah Huber, nutrition manager for Gleaners.

“The key point is partnerships and collaborations across sectors,” added another panelist, Alan Gilbert, vice president of new business initiatives at health insurance giant Anthem Inc.

Anthem’s philanthropic arm this year awarded a $1 million grant to launch the “Food is Medicine” program at seven U.S. food banks, including Gleaners.

Gleaners is partnering with Indianapolis’ safety-net health care system Eskenazi Health on the project, which will screen thousands of patients for food insecurity and help provide them access to healthy food.

As part of the program, Gleaners also will assess patients’ eligibility for federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP.

Another panelist, Joe Hanson, executive vice president of strategic initiatives at the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, said the cost of housing plays a big role in fueling food insecurity.

He said more than 100,000 households in Marion County spend an outsized percentage of their income on housing—more than 30%—which jeopardizes their ability to pay for food when unexpected expenses arise.

The Indy Chamber’s “Anchoring Revitalization” program, launched two years ago, helps combat that problem by providing downpayment assistance that leaves homebuyers with smaller, more affordable mortgages. Among the partners in that program are INHP and the Lilly Endowment.

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.

Panelists—including Dr. Lisa Harris, CEO of Eskenazi Health—said they already are seeing more people struggling and expressed concern those challenges will worsen further when an economic downturn hits.

Hanson said that Indianapolis’ median income used to be sufficient to buy a median-priced Indianapolis home, but that is no longer the case. He said housing prices are outstripping income growth.

“A downturn scares me relative to the population we serve,” he said.

Gleaners’ Huber said employers can help combat hunger and food insecurity by ensuring they are paying a living wage and by having an open conversation with employees about what they’re struggling with.

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