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Soul Food Project brings healthy options to Indianapolis food deserts

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In the summer months, Danielle Guerin is outside farming as soon as the sun comes up. As director of Soul Food Project, the 31-year-old is responsible for the upkeep of the organization’s three Indianapolis farms.

With a slight chill in the air, recently Guerin finished planting a few rows of seeds in what she calls “an experiment” for autumn. This is her first full year farming on this site — on a plot of land her family owns in Martindale-Brightwood — and she’s still learning the soil. While she’s unsure how the newly planted seeds will fare, Guerin knows the hunger in her community, the hunger that inspired her to start Soul Food Project in 2017, exists year-round.

Growing up near 35th Street and Sherman Drive, Guerin is one of the estimated 208,000 Indianapolis residents living in a food desert. According to researchers at The Polis Center at IUPUI, a food desert is a neighborhood with a poverty rate of at least 20% and where one-third of residents live farther than 1 mile from a grocery store. A 2021 study from The Polis Center found more than 25% of Black Hoosiers live in a food desert.

While her family had a car, Guerin knew many of her neighbors weren’t able to drive to a grocery store. Starting a garden, she said, was a way to feed those in need.

“I knew the neighborhood I grew up in was a food desert,” Guerin said. “I wanted to help out my neighbors.”

To buy produce from Soul Food Project, visit their website at soulfoodprojectindy.org.

The impacts of food deserts go beyond hunger. Negative health outcomes including diabetes and high blood pressure as well as vitamin deficiencies can all stem from food insecurity. That’s why Guerin, a former personal trainer, makes sure healthy options are available to Indianapolis residents.

At pop-up events around the city, Soul Food Project sells vegetables, fruits, eggs and herbs at prices fit for those on a budget. Guerin stresses the importance of implementing locally grown produce into your diet.

“In the African American community, we have a lot of diet-related health issues,” Guerin said. “Diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, those sorts of things. It makes getting healthier a little easier when you can take back that control of your diet, when you control what you’re eating and where it’s coming from.”

The Martindale-Brightwood farm — nestled in the middle of Sheldon Street — brings in much of Soul Food Project’s revenue. Here, customers can buy strawberries, peppers and collard and mustard greens, among other items. Much of the produce grown at the other two farms, one on Temple Avenue and the other in the Carriage House Apartment Complex on the city’s far east side, are donated to food pantries.

Guerin started farming in 2012, when she began interning with several Hoosier farms. To inspire the next generation of urban farmers, Soul Food Project has the Urban Garden Internship Project. For six weeks every summer, five teenagers are hired to work on the farm, making $10 an hour. In the process, they also learn about food security and food justice.

Harris Barker, 14, has been working with the Soul Food Project for almost four years. The Warren Central High School student works at the Sheldon Street and Carriage House farms and started his own garden at home his first year working with Soul Food Project. His favorite part of working with the organization is getting the chance to be outdoors, but the work has taught him valuable life lessons.

“It gives me a chance to give back to other families,” Barker said. “I know if I was in that position where I couldn’t provide food for myself, I would want someone to step in and help.”

Soul Food Project receives a grant to support urban farms from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. The funds help subsidize the purchase of the properties and with operating costs. Guerin said she hopes to expand the farms and grow year-round within the next five years.

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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