INDIANAPOLIS — With the shuttering of Marsh supermarkets and the unrelated merger of Whole Foods and Amazon, the food industry is being reshaped significantly in Indiana.
But it may not be bringing additional access to groceries for Hoosiers in low-income areas, instead leaving food deserts in communities.
"It has become a greater issue with more of the grocery stores now vacating a lot of the urban and rural neighborhoods," said State Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis. "You're getting less access to the grocery stores, less access to healthy foods and that creates a health problem."
Shackleford and Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, opened Wednesday’s hearing held by the Interim Study Committee on Government, a group of state legislators examining food deserts in Indiana and how other states handle food insecurity issues. The discussion also included ways to boost healthy food choices among low-income families.
Food deserts have been explored previously by the Indiana General Assembly but yielded no successful legislation. Some bills have sought to create grants and loans for remedies such as new groceries or promoting farmers markets.
About one in every seven Hoosiers is food insecure and doesn't know where their next meal may be coming from, according to Feeding Indiana's Hungry, an association of food banks. The rate includes more than 300,000 children in Indiana.
The agency recently reported that 38 Indiana counties have food insecurity rates among children at or above 20 percent.
Among programs discussed, Massachusetts is piloting a program that gives a dollar-for-dollar match when a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient purchases local fruits and vegetables at farmers markets or stands.
Anthony Gillespie of the Indiana Minority Health Coalition said the HFFI program could in part lead to the opening of mini-markets or agri-grocers as a way to revive economic activity in low-income neighborhoods.
"That's something that's sustainable in many communities and I think that addresses both healthy food access and in some instances food insecurity," he said.
Groceries typically find it easier to locate in suburbs because of available parking, lower insurance rates and ability to obtain loans as compared to businesses in low-income neighborhoods, according to the Indiana Healthy Food Access Coalition.
When small markets close in low-income neighborhoods, the perception is that the area is a poor business risk, a coalition spokeswoman said.
The next committee meeting is Oct. 4 in the Statehouse.