Cultivating food security 

Eating locally, growing locally, creating community

In the mid 1800s, New York was a city of nearly 1 million people, approximately the same population as metropolitan Indianapolis has today.

The food produced for those 1 million city-dwellers a century and a half ago traveled less than 10 miles, on average, from farm to a family’s kitchen. Today, the food that sustains Indianapolis residents travels an average of 1,500 to 2,000 miles before reaching grocery store shelves.

In addition to the environmental cost of burning fossil fuel at every stage of the production and transportation of food, our dependence on distant food sources raises the issue of food security. Wondering where the next meal will come from is a frightening and very real challenge for a good share of Hoosiers; but a dependency on non-local food sources puts everyone at risk.

What would happen if our carefully constructed food infrastructure were to break down? If the price of oil jumped to $100 a barrel? Or if melamine were found in imported, processed human food? What if bees weren’t around to provide pollination? Or if E. Coli again appeared in our spinach? Pick any scenario that could lead to empty grocery store shelves, even temporarily, and the results could be severe.

Growing community food security in Indianapolis

A group of local teenagers has found creative ways to change the food security situation in their neighborhood with the help of some adults and a good supply of worm tea.

On a sunny mid-April Saturday morning in Dewey’s Sunshine Community Garden on Beville Street in the Springdale neighborhood on Indianapolis’ Eastside, several youth energetically utilize their gardening skills, feeding plant life with worm “casting,” or worm poop-infused compost. Damien Carmer, 14, and Arthur Smith, 11, are known as the worm guys for creating a liquid fertilizer out of the worm castings that they like to call worm tea. Desire Turner, 13, Kimberly McClane, 12, and Darian Turner, 13, take care of the compost area, while 20-some adults volunteer for weeding and manure spreading.

These youth are part of a movement to create community food security, defined by Mike Hamm and Anne Bellows of Rutgers University as a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.

To work toward this, the youth participate in a new Indianapolis organization called The Growing Community. (The name, incidentally, was the idea of another teenager, 14-year-old Jaquelle Gist.)

The Growing Community, working closely with ReImagine Neighborhoods!, seeks to create a more comprehensive local food system connecting youth development with food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management. Each step feeds into the next, with the waste component (compost) nourishing the following year’s production.

The board president of The Growing Community is Alan Archibald, who has extensive experience working with low-income children and hunger relief efforts, and has even served as market master for a year at North United Methodist Church’s 38th and Meridian Street Farmers’ Market.

“We’re doing lots of food relief — the Mid North Pantry has been around for 30 years,” Archibald says, adding that while food relief efforts are important, he believes the focus should turn to food security efforts.

To that end, with eight years experience working with Los Angeles youth, a background in theology and a childhood on a Montana ranch, Archibald began doing work with the Heiffer Project. He describes how all of his experiences coalesced into a vision of involving low-income youth around food, “to help them see a vision of the future that we’re going to have to deal with.”

“Instead of asking them to get in the mainstream, which is polluted, dirty and shallow, we’re offering them another way. We’re teaching them self-reliance,” Archibald says.

Part of that teaching took place in Milwaukee, Wis., in March when Archibald and Darren Allumier, president of ReImagine Neighborhoods!, traveled with six Eastside youth (four boys and two girls) to participate in the Commercial Urban Agriculture Training Program at Growing Power, Inc., a non-profit organization that equips people with the skills needed to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food.

The youth are now able to put their skills into practice in Dewey’s Garden — a former brown patch converted to one of the longest-running community gardens in Indianapolis. The garden is owned by the John H. Boner Community Center and was maintained by Dewey Campbell until his death shortly after his 100th birthday a few years ago. After being re-named after its caretaker, the garden was neglected, but volunteers involved in community garden training eventually brought the garden back to life and back to providing fresh produce for the neighborhood residents.

Cooperative extension

The seeds of an inner-city neighborhood relationship were sown at Dewey’s during a June 2006 garden training. Allumier and Archibald met and began exchanging ideas and considering the possibilities. What emerged is what Allumier describes as a true “cooperative extension.” Whereas each organization has its mission and focus, both share the same vision. Allumier, whose background includes work in community health in the United States and overseas and with homeless youth, describes a synergy between the two organizations that out-weighs the sum of their parts.

“Neither group would be anywhere near as far along now as we are without the other,” Allumier says.

For instance, both men have been working with youth and urban agriculture projects, but ReImagine Neighborhoods! already had strong neighborhood name recognition, along with ownership of land in the form of farmable, urban lots on which the youth can work. Archibald brings plants and access to resources. As a result, the men combined their efforts on projects that involve the youth from their respective neighborhoods on a weekly basis since January, to help build a more comprehensive food security plan.

The Growing Community, which grew out of the Mid North Food Pantry’s “Youth Empowerment for Food Security Initiative,” is centered in the Mapleton Fall Creek neighborhood and focuses on three projects:

1. Assessing food security in the Mapleton/Fall Creek area to determine how many people are food secure or food insecure — that is, do they have to think about where the next meal will come from or do they miss meals.

2. Involving young people in high-yield, urban farming. The training in Wisconsin was just the beginning.

3. Involving youth in the entrepreneurial side of the food system by helping them develop skills in light bookkeeping, marketing and customer care.

Meanwhile, in collaboration with Purdue Extension, Allumier says ReImagine has applied for a USDA planning grant that will, if awarded, sustain both ReImagine and The Growing Community’s combined 2008 efforts.

“We will subsequently be able to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Food Project Grant that would allow us to ramp up in 2009 with a formalized, youth-driven CSA, and possibly a community-owned co-op of area residents and area farmers, urban and rural addressing the severe lack of [coordinated] food security on the near Eastside, and replicable throughout the city,” Allumier says.

Ultimately, the plan on Indianapolis’ near Eastside is to organize a youth-driven community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription service, according to Allumier, while developing a business plan for an urban food co-op. The CSA offers customers a way to buy locally grown produce while providing farmers with a stable customer and income base. To grow crops for the CSA and the co-op, Allumier says they will engage in what he’s calling “scattered-site urban farming” around the Springdale area.

Allumier says ReImagine Neighborhoods! was able to establish its organic gardening/urban farming program in 2006 due to a Neighborhood Action Grant from the city of Indianapolis. While that program no longer exists, Allumier says they could not have gotten started without that financial support.

The goal of the project is sustainable, local, organic, fresh food. That’s more than what’s available there now, especially since the closest Kroger store recently closed. “It wasn’t great,” Allumier says, “but now there’s none.”

Why food security?

Indianapolis is not food secure in part because it does not have enough community gardens or farmers’ markets.

An informal survey last summer found approximately 60 community gardens within Marion County. According to the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, Marion County is host to seven farmers’ markets. Only one market, located on the northwest side of Marion County, is open year-round. To compare statistically with the top five food and agriculture cities in a SustainLane survey, Indianapolis would, at the minimum, need to double or even triple its number of community gardens and farmers’ markets in order to have a minimum level of food security.

In addition to The Growing Community, the food security movement in Bloomington, Ind., could be a model for what is possible in Indianapolis.

H. Michael Simmons, adult program specialist for Bloomington Parks and Recreation, has been actively developing a food security system at the center of which is the City of Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market, billed as the largest in the state, with more than 3,500 customers weekly, according to city officials. By viewing food security as a food system, Simmons is working with market venders, CSAs, food co-ops and gardeners, along with social service agencies, to help make Bloomington a more food secure city for all residents.

Along with providing a solution to the problem of food security for Indianapolis, community gardens and farmers’ markets within the city can offer other positive benefits. One of these would be lessening the amount of fossil fuel used during produce transportation. Outside produce requires a much higher amount of oil to package and transport.

Every step of the way, food produced and processed through the conventional, industrialized food system is attached to oil. As Indianapolis storyteller Bob Sander describes the situation, “Hoosiers dine by the grace of oil. Plowing, planting, processing, shipping — every step brings food from field to table, held together by chain-links made of oil.” Even the beehives are transported from place to place.

Consider also the fossil fuels required to produce the plastics deemed necessary to package products. Richard Manning, in his article “The Oil We Eat,” writes, “Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like 10.”

So, how do we unlink our food chain from the oil chain? By eating locally produced food, for these reasons:

1. Fewer food miles (means less transportation required)

2. Sustainable production methods (means better tasting, more nutrient-rich food without compromising the life of the soil)

3. Increased food security.

Cutting down the fossil fuels

A study conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University compared the food miles of locally grown produce versus conventionally grown produce. Local food travels only about 60 miles, thus retaining its vibrancy and nutrients, while cutting down the fossil-fuels. And with a program like the Springdale neighborhood’s youth-driven CSA, those food miles could drop to 10 or less.

Besides less fuel usage and better food in general, gardens the size of a city lot, like Dewey’s, or even a small farm like Center Valley Organic Farm in Clayton, Ind., can have other benefits for communities in their efforts toward food security. Growers might be able to have some measure of control over the microclimate and provide a consistent supply of water for growing plants. In fact, according to Allumier, all of the gardens organized by ReImagine Neighborhoods! are “zero” impact, that is, off the grid, meaning that water will be captured for irrigation and lighting will be solar powered.

Involving youth in projects like community gardens like Dewey’s is one of the most positive benefits of all. Involving urban youth in the food security mission teaches them responsibility and provides them with a healthy, productive and socially engaging way to spend their time. These youth are also informed about serious problems such as food security that they might have a strong incentive to correct as they grow older.

For many in Indianapolis, achieving daily food security remains a challenge. According to the Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana Web site, some 205,330 Central Indiana residents need weekly food assistance. More than half are children and elderly people. Many Indianapolis residents don’t have direct access to locally-grown food, but for those who do, most farmers’ market vendors accept Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) vouchers.

With projects such as The Growing Community, Indianapolis can begin to tackle the issue of food security, a garden at a time, with the vision of adults, the stewardship of youth and a little help from some worm tea.

But what about lead

Soils adjacent to homes and garages built before 1950 have an increased risk of lead contamination because of the lead-based paints that were commonly used. New gardeners can decrease their exposure to lead in the soil with a little common sense and knowledge about the land surrounding their home. Neighborhoods near former or current industrial sites tend to have increased levels of lead. An example is Avanti, a lead smelting plant and Superfund site located on the 500 block of South Harris Avenue, which was the source of high levels of lead in the soil on property and around the neighborhood. And properties near major roadways tend to have higher concentrations of lead in the soil because of the use of leaded gasoline (which was finally banned in 1996 by the Clean Air Act).

The Maryland Cooperative Extension Service reports that lead can be found in soil at 15 to 40 parts per million (ppm). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that areas where children are present should not test higher than 400 ppm, according to Jeff Beyer, environmental health specialist who does lead inspections, risk assessments and code enforcement for the Marion County Health Department. Some agencies recommend no more than 100 ppm if you plan to grow a food garden.

So how do you know if you have lead in your soil? Have it tested. The Marion County Health Department can test soil for lead, but if they come out, Beyer said inspectors will look for sources of lead.

“We’ll come out, but we’ll check for other lead problems. We don’t charge for the inspection but residents could end up having to make repairs or paint if we find a problem.” Call 317-221-2155 for more information.

Janet McCabe, executive director of Improving Kids’ Environment, recommends calling the health department or taking soil samples to EMSL Analytical, Inc. The lab charges a fee depending on how quickly results are needed. They can be reached at 317-803-2997.

Other ways to avoid lead hazards is to plant your vegetable garden at least six feet away from any structure that might have been painted with lead paint, plant flowers instead of food crops or build raised beds and fill with clean top soil.


Read the SustainLane 2006 U.S. City Sustainability Ranking:

Ecological Footprint of the Global Food system:

Indy Sustainable Food Alliance:

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