By Dale Ogden,Contributing editor
When Marsh Supermarkets closed its remaining 44 stores in 2017, many of us got a small taste of what Indy’s underserved residents have endured for years. In 2015, Double 8 closed its last stores on Sherman Drive, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, Illinois Street and at Fairfield and Central Avenue.
These no-frills – but accessible and affordable – stores had served their inner-city neighbors since 1957, and their closings left residents with even fewer grocery options than had previously existed. And neither Kroger, Needler’s nor anyone else swooped in to supplant Double 8 as they did when Marsh collapsed.
Food insecurity – the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food – affects Hoosiers far more than we might realize. At the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, the need for meals surged, and according to the Indy Hunger Network, 270,000 people in Marion County now need regular food assistance.
Founded by Herron High School alumna, Sierra Nuckols in 2016, the Community Food Box Project (CFBP) is one initiative that’s attempting to address this crises. Modeled on the Little Free Library boxes that have sprung up around the city to promote neighborhood book exchanges, the CFBP has, to date, identified 74 boxes that can accommodate canned goods, pasta, rice, beans, and other non-perishables as well as toiletries such as toothpaste, soap, tampons and other necessities.
Nuckols has established an innovative method for acquiring boxes to hold the various goods. Rather than build from scratch, the CFBP acquires abandoned periodical boxes that dot the city.
In 2016 Nuckols wrote a proposal to NUVO to acquire one of its distribution boxes, and Indy’s alternative tabloid obliged. Three years later, when NUVO switched to an exclusively online publication, it donated the rest of its boxes. Smaller neighborhood periodicals provided additional containers. To date, Urban Times has supplied two boxes, but so far The Indianapolis Star hasn’t bought into the mission. “We still need to sell them on the idea,” Nuckols said.
Once acquired, distribution boxes are sanded, repainted and otherwise refurbished. Churches, schools (IPS 54 and 56 as well as “a couple charters, mostly elementary schools”), businesses, the Haughville branch library and other concerns regularly reach out to offer space on their property where a box can be installed as well as the means for stocking them. Nuckols also recruits volunteers who commit to supplying the boxes “every other day.”
Perhaps the Community Food Box Project’s most ingenious partnership is the one that was forged with American Legion Post 608, which is housed within the walls of the u u Pendleton Correctional Facility. Seven incarcerated craftsmen were each given a box to refurbish and paint as they chose, within the parameters of CFBP standards. In return for their labor, each inmate was able to select the location where their box was to be installed.
While attending Hanover College in 2018, Nuckols enrolled in a sociology class that introduced her to the realities of rural poverty, including the fact that hunger isn’t simply an urban problem. Though not technically “rural,” CFBP installed a food box in the nearby town of Madison. A greater need was soon identified in the small neighboring communities of Austin and Scottsburg .
Teen pregnancy and the attendant high school dropouts had long been a challenge in Austin where the New York Times reported a poverty rate that approached 30%. Sadly, these critical problems led to even more severe issues with two of rural America’s greatest crises – methamphetamine abuse and H.I.V. infections. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that the community of less than 4,000 residents “contain(ed) the largest drug-fueled H.I.V. outbreak to hit rural America in recent history.” The CDC concluded that Austin’s 5% infection rate “is comparable to some African nations.”
Tackling endemic hunger in not only Indiana’s largest metropolis but also in one of the state’s most severely affected rural areas requires the perpetual efforts of highly motivated and thoroughly dedicated activists. Sierra Nuckols is one such person.
Not unfamiliar with the issue. Sierra Nuckols grew up in a multi-cultural neighborhood on Indy’s Near Eastside. Her mother, who gave birth at the age of 15, had experienced occasional hunger in her own childhood. Although she worked to assure Sierra wouldn’t suffer the same dilemma, the child grew up fed but unexposed to a truly healthy diet. Fast food and instant dinners stave off hunger but don’t provide an ideal foundation for a growing youngster.
In 2014, Sierra enrolled on scholarship at Hanover College, six miles west of Madison Indiana, where she majored in anthropology. It was while she was at Hanover that Nuckols had the opportunity to enjoy the most transformative experience of her life. The Desmond Tutu Center in South Africa had received a gift from the Herbert Simon Family Foundation in Indianapolis that allowed the Center to launch a Youth Fellows Initiative, an empowerment program for young emerging leaders from Central Indiana and South Africa.
The initiative was designed to support youths, ages 16-21, who wanted to challenge existing norms that prevent a population from achieving equality. In collaboration with Indy’s Peace Learning Center, students from Central Indiana were selected to participate based on their passion for social justice and a desire to implement a project to uplift their community. Youth Fellows traveled to South Africa on a two-week educational tour where they were paired with an organization related to their social justice interests. They lived with a South African family, saw the country, including problems created by generations of apartheid, and sought out key South African lessons for social justice work and community development. Upon their return, Fellows applied what they learned by implementing a social justice project in Central Indiana.
The highlight of the trip came when the group met Nobel Prize-winner Bishop Desmond Tutu. Nuckols recalls Bishop Tutu challenging the students with the declaration, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not able to do something. Nothing is impossible.” Inspired by the experience, Nuckols intensified her research into food insecurity and soon identified the problem as a niche where she might be able to make a difference.
Defining the broader issue. The problem of food insecurity is far more complex than simply the absence of a grocery store down the street. Building a Fresh Market at 34th and Sherman, as is proposed, wouldn’t solve anything. And cliches don’t help. For example, New York activist Karen Washington dismisses the popular term “food desert.” “People tell you they have food and ‘desert’ makes us think of an empty, desolate place. But when we’re talking about these (neighborhoods), there is life and vibrancy and potential. Using the word ‘desert’ runs the risk of preventing us from seeing those things.”
“Better to say, ‘food apartheid,’ because ‘food apartheid’ looks at the whole food system, along with race, geography, faith and economics,” Washington said. “You say, ‘food apartheid’ and you get to the root cause of some of the problems around the food system. It brings in hunger and poverty. It brings us to the more important questions: What are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are we doing to erase some of the injustices?”
Nuckols dug deep into these questions and the historic impact of systemic racism. For example, the use of “redlining” is most often associated with housing discrimination, but racist practices never impact a single social issue. Dating to at least the early 1900s, redlining refers to the discriminatory practice of withholding financial and other services from potential customers who reside in neighborhoods classified as “hazardous to investment.” The most well-known examples involve denial of credit and insurance, which have made it difficult to build a home or establish a business in many low-income neighborhoods.
In the case of supermarkets, the purposeful construction of stores impractically far from targeted residents results in de facto redlining. This problem has been exacerbated in Indianapolis by the chronic absence of dependable and comprehensive public transportation. It’s very difficult to acquire healthy and nutritious food if you lack the means of getting to locations where it’s available.
The term “redlining” originated in the 1960s to describe the banking practice of classifying certain neighborhoods as not worthy of investment due to the racial makeup of their residents. Multiple studies found that banks would often lend in lower-income white neighborhoods but not in middle-income or even upper-income Black districts. Redlining institutions even recorded areas, groups and people that were to be purposefully excluded.
Of course, redlining isn’t the only obstacle to addressing food apartheid. Gentrification of formerly under-served neighborhoods has made the purchase of land for community gardens and buildings that might serve as staging centers far more expensive than they were only a few years ago. As with problems that challenge major cities across America, there are no quick fixes available in Indy. Concerted efforts by public and private enterprises will be required for years to come.
The future of the Community Food Box Project and related initiatives. From 2017-2020, Nuckols managed Flanner Farm, a two-acre site at the community center in the 2400 block of Dr. M.L.K. Jr Street. There she learned that overcoming food apartheid involved more than handing out free food. In addition to receiving job readiness training, young adults with barriers like homelessness, previous incarceration, a lack of education and other challenges raised vegetables, chickens, bees and other commodities that produce healthy food.
Food banks and pantries provide an invaluable service that was originally intended to address emergencies. Instead, again according to Karen Washington, “They’ve become a way of life. … Poor people standing in line, getting their food as a handout.”
One pantry Washington supports is set up like a supermarket, “so customers come and shop like they would at a regular store. … They’re not giving out free plastic bags of food. They also offer job training and a chef who teaches clients how to prepare food. I tell them to ask people, ‘Why are you here? Is it that you don’t have a job? Are you ill? Are you homeless?’ By knowing those answers, they can help a person. … Talk about what’s offered in terms of social work and helping people get apartments. For, ‘I just got out of jail,’ talk about entry programs that can help. Or: ‘I lost a job… I’m looking for a job.’ Let’s have job training on site for employment opportunities so people can seek jobs.”
Besides using the knowledge gained from her multi-faceted experience at Flanner Farm, Nuckols has taken Washington’s advice to heart. As with pantries, community food boxes are meant to address emergencies and are not intended to be a lifelong means of getting free food. So Nuckols is working to obtain land where a mini-farm will expose people to fresh food and teach them how to grow their own produce.
“We’re working on connecting with individuals and organizations in a neighborhood where the garden will be located,” Nucklos said. “I hope to grow the Community Food Box Project into a sustainable non-profit with multiple avenues to enact change. Additional boxes, a community garden, a centralized pantry and delivery truck, grants to create a permanent position so I can devote far more time to the project than I’ve been able to as a volunteer are all in the works.”
To assist with the Community Food Box Project – financially, by donating volunteer labor, providing products for food boxes or any other way to contribute – contact Sierra Nuckols through www.communityfoodboxproject.org or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Above: Sierra Nucklos and Pastor Mark Maxwell of the Praise and Worship Ministries show off one of the first Community Food Boxes placed in 2017 in the Little Flower neighborhood, where Nuckols was raised. Maxwell assures that volunteers keep the box – one of seven refurbished by inmates at the Pendleton Correctional Facility – well stocked.