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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Tales from a food desert

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When Richard Blakenbaker opened his second Richard’s Market Basket store in the early 1960s at 3701 E. 38th St., he had competition from the Del Farm Foods store across the street on that busy corner at Sherman Drive.

A little more than a mile away, he competed with himself, opening a third store at 38th Street and Emerson Avenue.

The stores served the thriving Forest Manor neighborhood, where starting in 1921, the Security Trust Co. helped homeowners achieve the American dream and brake ground on their bungalows and cottages.

Those suburban pioneers tried to secure their property values by inserting clauses into the deeds that the homes could not be sold to Black people.

What Blankenbaker may not have counted on was the transformation of that neighborhood’s socioeconomics, starting about the time he opened his stores when an aging population whose children were raised and out of the home left for greener pastures. Ready to return to their rural roots or retire to an apartment with less maintenance, the homeowners found ways around the discriminatory clauses.

Over the following decade, the Forest Manor area slowly became minority majority as middle-class African-American and interracial families replaced the original owners.

Many in the area say the urban decay took root in 1971 when Indianapolis Public Schools was ordered by federal Judge S. Hugh Dillin to desegregate its schools.

Many of the middle-class African-American residents who thought they’d arrived when they bought their first home in Forest Manor sought refuge for their children in the school districts of Washington, Pike and Lawrence townships. That left a dwindling number of middle-class homeowners and an increasing number of less-invested lower-income renters.

By the mid-1970s, Del Farm closed its store. By the late 1980s, Blakenbaker would retreat too.

An oasis of her own

During the spring, summer and part of the fall, Vivian Randolph, 48, putters around in the vegetable garden of the home her family moved into when she was 5 years old, tugging at tomatoes and breaking off some green beans for dinner.

“I love it when springtime comes and I can grow my own garden. That’s a relief,” she said.

But when the frost hits, Randolph, like her neighbors in the Forest Manor neighborhood, has to find an alternate source of nutrition. A vegetarian, she often drives a circuit that includes the Georgetown Market near Georgetown and Lafayette roads, the Good Earth Natural Foods in Broad Ripple and the Kroger store at 71st Street and Binford Boulevard.

“There’s a Kroger closer to me that I don’t utilize because they don’t sell what I would buy,” she said, referring to one in the Devington shopping center at the corner of 46th Street and Arlington Avenue. “They don’t sell organic vegetables.”

Randolph knows firsthand what it is to live in a food desert. They are defined as rural or urban areas where a minimum of 20 percent of residents live in poverty and where one-third live without ready access to a large grocery store.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the fewest number of food deserts exist in the Midwest. In fact, Indiana stands out as one of five states that has easily accessible grocery options for residents.

Forest Manor, however, is one of the exceptions. It’s one of several Indianapolis food deserts.

Unlike many of her neighbors, Randolph has the money and the transportation for what many have come to consider a luxury: grocery shopping.

She also has the luxury of moving to a neighborhood with shiny new homes, lower crime rates and retail amenities. But sentimentality, the teachings of her late father Raymond Randolph and the quality of the three-bathroom, three fireplace brick home where she has lived most of her life have steeled her resolve to stay put.

“My father had the overall philosophy that you don’t abandon a neighborhood. You stay and make it what you want it to be,” she said.

Like many in the area, Randolph is frustrated at efforts to open a taxpayer-funded Whole Foods store in Broad Ripple, where there already are Kroger and Marsh stores, the Good Earth and a Fresh Market. The Broad Ripple Civic League agreed, launching a “Say NO to TIF Funds for Broad Ripple” campaign.

“Amazingly, the money went to Whole Foods. They got $5 million to situate in Broad Ripple, which is the antithesis of a food desert,” she said. “The idea that that area needs another grocery store is a joke. Taxpayer money should have been allotted for a true food desert.”

But Randolph, who raised her four children four blocks from her childhood home, even as the neighborhood around her crumbled, is about solutions. She recently bought a quarter-acre property near 33rd Street and Sherman Drive where she plans to plant a garden and offer nutrition education.

In addition to introducing her neighbors to healthy food, she said she hopes to use the project to keep neighborhood youth, who otherwise might get into trouble, constructively engaged.

“They are eager to help, and they’re really smart. They just need persons who will put time and energy into them,” she said.

Getting over the hump

Pregnant with her third child, Melissa Fisher is as tempted as any parent to go through the drive-through on her way home from a long day at work, rather than slave over a hot stove. She understands how one-third of the residents of Forest Manor stop by White Castle, McDonald’s or Long John Silver’s three to five times each week as they travel the 38th Street corridor.

But as project director for the Indy East Food Desert Coalition, she knows it’s better for her family to take the time to visit the grocery store for whole foods rather than pre-packaged meals and cook instead.

“It’s easier to open a package of mac and cheese,” the mother of two boys admitted.

The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in August that Indiana is the eighth most obese state in the nation, up from 15th in 2011. At 31.4 percent, the obesity rate is up from 30.8 percent in 2012, according the health advocacy organization.

According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 73.4 percent of Black Hoosiers were overweight or obese in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.

Many believe a lack of access to fresh foods and whole foods contributes to obesity, especially among African-Americans.

The IEFDC, made up of the Forest Manor Multi-Service Center, Community Alliance of the Far-Eastside and United Northeast Community Development Corp., develops strategies for improving food access. It covers an area along 38th Street from Fall Creek Parkway to about Mitthoeffer Road.

“It’s hard to say by neighborhoods, but the bulk of the Eastside can be considered a food desert for sure,” Fisher said. She estimates at least two-thirds of the Eastside qualifies as a federally designated food desert.

“It usually centers around a specific population rather than a neighborhood,” she said.

The rise of a food desert is the result of a complex mix of factors, including crime and insufficient transportation options.

A report commissioned by IEFDC that’s due to be released this month by Butler University’s Urban Ecology Department also contains some surprising facts about the food habits of Forest Manor residents that make the area a food desert. Those include that only 1 percent cook regularly; of those who do, 25 percent get all their food items from charitable pantries; and that one-third buy their food at restaurants three to five times a week, Fisher said.

“It’s pretty devastating the number of people who pick up fast food or stop by a convenience store,” she said.

These statistics are discouraging to grocery chains, which already operate with narrow profit margins, said Fisher and Kyle McIlrath, health and wellness coordinator for the Forest Manor Multi-Service Center. For stores to survive, they said, neighborhoods need residents who will shop regularly on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Some strategies, however, already are in place, including visits by the Green Bean produce trucks; farmers’ markets supplied by the harvests of community gardens; and plans for neighborhood cooperatives owned and operated by residents.

But McIlrath said though a co-op would help bring fresh produce into the neighborhood, it is not an end unto itself.

“We hope that will attract other grocery stores to come back into the Eastside,” he said.

The final straw

Richard Blankenbaker could not have predicted how his position as public safety director, the changing demographics of the neighborhood and his business interests would converge into a disaster that would hasten Forest Manor’s decline into a food desert.

In 1980, Mayor William H. Hudnut III named Blankenbaker public safety director, overseeing the Indianapolis police and fire departments. On the recommendation of the mayor’s Tanselle-Adams Commission, Blankenbaker put in place an in-service program on race relations and cultural understanding.

But all that didn’t matter on Sept. 24, 1987, when a 16-year-old African-American named Michael Taylor was fatally shot in the head while handcuffed in the back seat of an IPD cruiser following an auto theft arrest. The official story –supported by IPD investigators, the Marion County coroner, the FBI and a private investigator hired by a group of local Black ministers – was that Michael committed suicide with a concealed gun.

Not satisfied with the result, members of the African-American community decided to hit Blakenbaker where it hurts, his pocketbook. In November 1987, they picketed his grocery stores for five days and encouraged shoppers to boycott them.

In January of 1988, Blankenbaker announced that the financial pressure of the boycott had so damaged his bottom line he would need to close the store at 38th Street and Emerson Avenue.

Blankenbaker died in November 1988. His son Jim Blankenbaker took over running the remaining two stores for a few years until, they, too were closed.

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