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Making Food Insecurity a Thing of the Past

Indianapolis, like many cities, has challenges with food access and food security. According to the most recent data from Indy Hunger Network, Indianapolis’ leading anti-hunger organization, more than 1 in 5 (nearly 200,000) Marion County residents were food insecure in 2014. And the numbers continue to rise. In early 2017, Marsh Supermarkets, a core grocer in the city, filed for bankruptcy leaving ten stores throughout Indianapolis permanently closed, many were located in poorer neighborhoods.

To address this growing problem, especially as the holidays approach, Indianapolis is taking strides to use its data to improve food access and food security. Through work with GovEx and the What Works Cities Program, Indianapolis began integrating food-focused work into its organizational performance structure. With newly created metrics, goals, and collaborative work among departments focusing on food, Indianapolis is using its community resources in new ways to meet one of the most important challenges for cities.

Organically Indy

In 2016, newly elected Mayor of Indianapolis, Joe Hogsett, reorganized the former Department of Public Safety into the Office of Public Health and Safety (OPHS) and created a Food Policy and Program Coordinator (FPPC) position to help address these critical food-related issues. Shellye Suttles was hired to fill that role and immediately got to work building relationships and partnerships with community organizations. Yet, more work needed to be done to integrate work across the city government and focus on Indianapolis’s unique situation.

At the same time, Indianapolis was also launching its Indy Performs program to integrate performance tracking and decision-making across the city. As Director of Audit and Performance (OAP) Hope Tribble planned to launch the program, she was looking for programs to take the first steps to pilot Indy Performs. With support from GovEx, Hope and Shellye worked together to set up a structure to track performance for the Food Policy Program that would also serve as a test case for other departments across the city.

Since you can’t manage what you don’t measure, GovEx and Indianapolis got started by working to establish clear shared metrics for food security and food access. These included building an Indianapolis specific definition of a food desert to meet the specific challenges of Indianapolis and Marion County, bringing in food pantries and nonprofit providers for a food summit, and developing increasing focus on summer meals provisions to children through the Indy Parks department. We also helped them to get higher quality data on which neighborhoods had been left without food options.

Indy Performs in Action

To launch the Indy Performs program, Indianapolis held a performance focused meeting with the Mayor’s leadership team on food security and food access. GovEx worked extensively with the city to prepare for the meeting, facilitate the meeting, and plan for follow ups. In the meeting, Shellye and Hope targeted several areas for discussion with leadership:

  1. Expanding summer meals to the right neighborhoods and expanded mobile food locations to get meals to needy kids
  2. Rezoning land to allow more urban agriculture to help local entrepreneurs fill in the food gap left by grocery stories that left,
  3. Rebidding city vending machines contracts to focus on healthy, affordable options in all city buildings to start addressing nutritional outcomes inside city hall for both employees and city residents who may need food inside city buildings, including at city parks.

Following the first Indy Performs meeting, Shellye continued to track data on food security to provided updates to staff. In addition, feedback from the meeting focused extensively on partnerships and Shellye redoubled her efforts to connect and work with organizations like Purdue University’s extension program and the local Indianapolis food council.

Indy Performs Expanded

The pilot on food security also allowed Indianapolis to plan out its efforts on performance management moving forward for all departments. The Indy Performs meeting is now a monthly meeting of cross-departmental leadership to discuss key issues around Mayor Hogsett’s three priorities of Reducing Poverty, Increasing Public Safety, and Maintaining Fiscal Solvency. One of three priorities is discussed in depth each month at the Indy Performs meeting in a conversation driven by data.

Moving forward, Indianapolis is well-positioned to keep its momentum going. New focus areas will go deep on public safety and fiscal solvency across agencies. And the city will be providing additional support including dedicated analytical support for agencies and data visualization capacities.  By building performance infrastructure, piloting a program with a willing agency, and building human capacity to support the program, Indianapolis is building the foundation for better outcomes for residents.

Without a plan for data, Indianapolis struggled to target action. But with GovEx’s support, the city outlined the scope of its problem, developed an action plan, and is now moving quickly to make food insecurity in Indianapolis, thankfully, a thing of the past.


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