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When I think “food program,” I picture hungry people. I picture a soup line with emaciated men and women holding bowls. I picture thin children with pieces of bread staring up at me. Kind of a cross between Oliver Twist and one of those “feed a child” commercials.
What I don’t picture is obesity. What I don’t picture is the overweight. What I don’t picture is diabetes and heart disease.
But time and time again, these things pop up at Shepherd. Shepherd doesn’t fit my picture of a food program.
That’s because they’re fighting an injustice I had never heard about.
Feeding the Hungry?
I knew Shepherd was alleviating hunger in this community. A food pantry on the weekends, breakfast at the medical clinic, meals for the Sunday services, all these help to feed those struggling with hunger. And I met individuals who face that struggle daily.
But I also met individuals who were quite overweight, who I couldn’t imagine going hungry. If you’re overweight, a lack of food is clearly not your problem… Right?
What was going on here?
When I heard about the kitchen at Shepherd’s school, I pictured them serving thin kids. Kids who only get one meal a day. Kids rescued from starvation.
And while some kids at Shepherd Academy that fit that category, there are also kids that are overweight.
What was I missing?
I would soon have my answer, but I wouldn’t like it.
Standing in Shepherd’s free clinic, I met a young man with high blood pressure. He is above a healthy weight, and his blood pressure is high enough to endanger his life. He’s not even 20 yet and he’s already at risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Riding in a Shepherd bus, I heard a man discuss his recent heart surgery. A procedure to buy him a few more years on a life cut short by an unhealthy diet.
These things are terrible. But coming from suburbia, I’d never heard that being overweight or unhealthy was an injustice. I mean, it was their decision to eat those things. They could have made different choices. Right?
Turns out, I was wrong again.
Speaking with staff at Shepherd, I’ve come to learn that most of these people don’t have access to healthy food. Some of it is too expensive, but most of it is simply too far away.
It can take hours of travel to get just a few bags of fresh groceries. I decided to try this for myself, and rode the bus to the nearest grocery store. Start to finish, my trip was over two hours for just a bag of groceries.
On the flip-side, easy, cheap food is readily available from gas station or convenience store just a few minutes away.
Families working long hours to afford the most basic food barely have time to sleep between jobs. They certainly don’t have time to cook. So instant meals and carry-out become the norm.
And the result of all this is that people are dying. If a human being doesn’t get healthy food, they die. Either quickly from starvation, or slowly from heart disease and diabetes. And the people in this community are dying. Not because of choices they’ve made, but because of where they live.
And that’s injustice.
More than Relief
This injustice is so ingrained into the community here I couldn’t imagine what Shepherd could do to change things. Multiple generations, intersecting cultures and nationalities, racial issues, economic hurdles, how do you deal with it all? Where do you start?
At Shepherd, it’s with a school.
In this school they’re not simply offering food, they’re offering good food. Healthy food. Tasty food. And with this good food comes education about nutrition and availability and even cooking!
In their after-school clubs they teach elementary kids basic cooking concepts, working to expose them to the idea that they can make their own food.
Executive Chef Jim Bradford uses his culinary training to teach a special cooking class for high school. Not only does he teach cooking techniques, but the class also exposes teenagers to different culinary traditions from around the world.
Even the parents get a chance to be involved. Through Shepherd’s food Co-Op, families are receiving fresh fruits and vegetables. By paying a small fee and agreeing to take a shift sorting the food, they receive a box packed full of fresh fruits and vegetables every week.
These vegetables mean health for the families, education about cooking fresh meals, and a sense of community for members. The real issue of food poverty in Indy is not a lack of food, but a lack of availability and access. This Co-op makes healthy food available to the community, and gives families the opportunity to access it.
By educating children and empowering their parents, Shepherd is doing more than treating a disease, they’re working to bring an end to it.
And they’re not slowing down.
Chef Jim dreams of expanding the food program. Offering cooking classes for adults. Agriculture projects for the kids. Expanding Shepherd’s teaching gardens into productive sources of food for local families.
Eleanor, the head of the greenhouse and coordinator for the Co-Op, proudly displays their donated hydroponics system and tells me about the hope for the Co-Op to become fully independent, to no longer need Shepherd’s help.
This is radically different vision from food relief. Shepherd doesn’t want people to be dependent on them. They’re working to make themselves obsolete.
Abundance and Opportunity
There’s food out there. In this country, in this city, there’s food in abundance. These diseases people are dying from have a cure. It’s in our supermarkets and restaurants and grocery stores and kitchen shelves. And it’s just beyond their reach.
I never knew there was a disease downtown. I was never taught that being overweight was not their fault. I was never told about the injustice of being born without access to fresh food.
Now that I’ve seen the injustice here I thank God for places like Shepherd. I’m thankful they are loving a people I never knew about, fighting an injustice I’d never heard of and I’m thankful that now I have a chance to join them.
- Want to make a donation to help break the cycle of poverty in Indianapolis? Click here.
- You can volunteer to help out in the Academy kitchen, or sign up with your church or small group to help provide serve food for the community on the weekend. Click here to find out more.
- Obesity is often seen as a choice, not a sickness or injustice. Changing that perception starts with telling these stories, spread the word among your family, small group, or co-workers.
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.