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Indianapolis mayoral candidates call health, food access disparities serious issues

Roundup from Indianapolis Mayoral Debate on WISH-TV, from News 8 at 5 p.m. Oct. 24, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A leading social service provider on Tuesday said whoever wins the 2023 Indianapolis mayoral election needs to treat food access as a systemic issue, not a symptomatic one.

Flanner House Executive Director Brandon Cosby said Indianapolis’ well-documented food deserts and disparities in life expectancy–as low as 66 years in areas just north of downtown versus 91 years near Carmel–are the result of a series of past economic and policy decisions, often racially motivated. He said any effort to reverse those effects will have to incorporate a combination of food policy and economic development.

“What they need to keep in mind is creating economic opportunities in neighborhoods and communities that simultaneously address the food issue but also enable entrepreneurs, food creators, the opportunity to be able to create economic pathways to self-sufficiency and sustainability,” Cosby said.

More than 208,000 Indianapolis residents live in a food desert, which the USDA defines as any low-income area where a significant number of people live more than one mile, or 10 miles in rural areas, from the nearest supermarket. During a live, televised debate on WISH-TV Monday night, News 8 asked mayor candidates Jefferson Shreve and Joe Hogsett how they would fix the food desert and health disparity problems. Both candidates said the disparities are serious issues that warrant close attention.

Shreve said he would launch an incentive program to encourage developers to repurpose old retail stores into small-scale grocery stores. As for health disparities, Shreve said he would work with healthcare providers such as IU Health to bring more services to underserved areas.

Hogsett said he would continue to work on programs such as the Compass App, which helps people locate food assistance services, and Lyft’s $1 ride program, to allow people to reach grocery stores. He said the best way to fix life expectancy disparities long term is to bring better-paying jobs and improve educational outcomes in affected areas.

Cosby said whoever wins the mayor’s race must resist the temptation to simply launch a new program in a neighborhood. He said a Shreve Administration or a continued Hogsett Administration needs to involve neighborhoods from the earliest stages of a project and listen closely to what members of that community say they need.

“What works really well is a model that actually embraces the neighborhood and the culture of the community that the retailer is there to serve,” Cosby said. “Bringing in outside national models that are just kind of cookie cutter and plop down in the middle of neighborhoods and communities is a model of what is being done to a community as opposed to something that is being done with and for a community.”

Early voting is underway. Election Day is Nov. 7.