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Coming to the near east side of Indianapolis, I expected things to be different than the suburbs. But I never expected things to resemble a South African slum!
In South Africa, the nearest grocery store was forty minute drive. It made sense there. I was in a township, a sort of government-created slum. I expected groceries to be far away.
Here in Indianapolis, however, I expected things to be quite different. I thought, “Any person with enough money can get food, right?”
I was wrong.
An hour-long bus ride to the closest grocery store proved I was sorely mistaken about how difficult the simple act of getting food can be. It also showed me how indescribable hope can be encountered in the most unexpected of places.
Working at Shepherd Community Center, I had heard over and over that the biggest obstacle to nutrition is not the existence of food, but the availability of it and access to it.
I had heard about families who shopped almost entirely from gas stations, convenience stores, and fast food places. These are on every block, no more than a few minutes’ walk away.
But driving around here, I’d seen a Marsh and a Kroger. I knew there were grocery stores. I thought,
“Maybe it’s a little inconvenient, but it can’t be that hard to get food. I mean, this is America!”
I decided I needed to find out for myself.
I plugged my location into my computer and did a search for nearby grocery stores. There was a Kroger only a few miles away, and an Aldi’s beyond that.
Without a car I would have to take a bus. No bus lines went by Kroger. What was only a few minutes’ drive with a car now seemed utterly distant without one. Miles in the snow carrying groceries felt impossible, or at least far too difficult to be done regularly. What if it rained?
Aldi is a more popular store. A low-cost alternative to “luxurious” stores like Kroger or Marsh. It had a bus line that stopped right in front of it. It was only fifteen minutes away by car, certainly this counted as access. I checked how long it would take to get there by bus.
One hour and four minutes to destination.
A Cold Bus stop
I paid five dollars for round-trip bus fare. I tried to imagine paying five dollars every time I walked into Meijer. Or five dollars for an hour-long taxi ride to a store a few miles away. I’d be pretty ticked off.
The first bus actually drove away from Aldi. I had to switch routes in Indianapolis. After being let out in the city and walking to the next stop, I had to wait out in the cold for my connecting bus. There was no bench, just a sign by an intersection.
As cars whipped by I tried to imagine my mom having to do this – stand in the cold, alone, near empty parking lots in Indianapolis on her way to buy groceries.
It made me feel sick. And my realization that this was a reality for other mothers didn’t help. It was a twenty-minute wait between buses.
Not Worth It
My connecting bus began another twenty-minute ride the rest of the way to Aldi. The bus was crowded, and as I looked around I couldn’t help but sympathize with the common decision to buy cheap, unhealthy food.
As I saw some people with bags perched on their laps, I marveled that all this work – a two hour round trip, was for only two bags of groceries. That’s the limit you can carry on a city bus.
In the suburbs, I always saw healthy eating as an issue of responsibility. Healthy food is easily accessible, and just like maintaining personal hygiene or keeping my house clean, I was always taught my health was my responsibility.
Practically a moral issue.
But here, when it takes bus fare, hours of riding, and standing in the cold just to get two bags of groceries it makes sense to get what is cheaper, faster, and easier. It would seem an irresponsible waste to spend that much time and money for just two bags.
Here, being healthy doesn’t seem to add up. But Shepherd is working to change the equation.
Changing the Equation
Shepherd is dedicated to making healthy food accessible to its community. Every child who attends school at Shepherd gets a healthy breakfast and a healthy lunch. For the children who come to the after-school programs, there’s a healthy snack waiting for them as well.
This works to help meet the immediate needs of these children. Many of their home diets put them at risk for diabetes and heart disease. These meals provide an oasis of health.
But this is not Shepherd’s long-term solution. To change the equation, they need to bring fresh food into the neighborhoods. They need to create access. The frontline ministry to do this is Shepherd’s food Co-Op.
In the Co-Op, fresh fruits and vegetables are donated and families have a chance to come to Shepherd and pick them up. Families pay a small fee and agree to help organize the food when it arrives by truck. In exchange, they receive a big box of fresh foods every week.
From bananas to carrots and blueberries to potatoes, the Co-Op can provide access to food that would otherwise be too far away or too expensive to get. It’s a nutritional foundation for the families to build on.
Shepherd is working to bring access and change the equation for families in downtown Indianapolis. But sitting on that long bus ride, I still felt for the people who had to live in such misery now.
To live in an area struggling with crime and unemployment is one thing, but to have the money for fresh food and be forced to wait hours to get it seemed like the final insult. Shepherd is working to change the future, but where was their hope for the now?
In the seat behind me, I overheard a man talking about losing his wife. He was telling a complete stranger about the despair he felt, about the hopelessness and the struggles. About being alone. Feeling abandoned, even punished.
But then his story changed, and with growing excitement he described the hope he had discovered. He described a relationship with Jesus Christ that after 60 years of churchgoing had become real. How a Bible study had helped to open up his mind and heart to receive the Peace that God had been preparing him for his whole life.
I couldn’t help myself,
“What church do you go to?”
He smiled at me,
Feed My Sheep
I knew in that moment why Shepherd was so important.
They’re bringing access to hope.
They’re not just making food available, they’re making Christ available.
As they feed these children, as they educate and empower these parents, they’re showing Christ’s Love.
And the people here are getting it. They’re taking that love and they’re bringing it home and applying it to their struggles. And they are overcoming.
This man on the bus was freely proclaiming to me, a total stranger, how he had lost everything he loved and how God had not abandoned him.
I want that kind of hope, I want that kind of bold joy, I want to learn what Shepherd taught him. To simply hear him taught me something.
In that moment, I was the one being fed.
I want Shepherd to continue, I want Shepherd to grow. I want them to continue to bring food, hope, and love to the people of Indianapolis.
Then maybe those people who have learned about a God who can overcome hunger and want and even great loss, will be the ones to feed me and my family as well.
About the Author: Brad Miller is a year-long fellow with WND. A student of Psychology, Biology, and Theatre, he's worked as an actor, teacher, balloon artist and last-minute fill-in guy for any number of projects. He loves camping and tinkering with broken and discarded things. Brad's passion in life is to unleash the potential in others.