Vivian Muhammad has lived in her northeast Indianapolis neighborhood for more than 40 years. Growing up, she remembers grocery stores nearby and nutritious food within reach. But over the years, a lot has changed in this community, including the food landscape.
“We don’t have a lot of grocery stores in our area. Most of the grocery stores that were here have closed down,” she said.
Her neighborhood is known as a food desert, where options for affordable, good-quality, fresh food are limited.
“It’s not that there’s not food. It’s just not the type of food that’s going to contribute to our overall health and well-being,” she said.
Knowing the importance of nutritious food for whole health, Vivian’s family started a garden in their backyard in 2006, growing nutrient-dense produce that had become scarce in their area. That garden expanded and grew into a vital, nutritious food source for their community. They named it Elephant Gardens, because elephants are herbivores and very loyal to their community. The urban garden was founded by Vivian and her mother, Joyce Randolph, and the labor spans across four generations of children and grandchildren, all getting down in the dirt to ensure their neighbors have access to healthy food.
Customers line up for their green beans, tomatoes, and peppers—just to name a few of the fresh organic items offered at their market at 3348 N. Sherman. But it’s about more than selling their produce: Vivian believes the value of their operation is rooted in demonstrating entrepreneurship and education. Their goal is to teach others, especially youth, about the business of farming and encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle.
It’s one of the reasons Vivian was excited to learn her neighborhood is receiving funding to support food programs and strategies to reduce food insecurity. It’s part of The Equitable Food Access in Indianapolis Neighborhoods initiative, a partnership between the Elevance Health Foundation and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Indianapolis. The three-year, $2.45 million initiative, funded by the Elevance Health Foundation, aims to improve nutritious food access and help build a more equitable food system. Food is medicine, and to improve health outcomes, we need to take a broader view of health and what drives it.
“We’re deeply focused on addressing the drivers of health, like food insecurity and the inconsistent and insufficient access to nutritious food that affects the whole health of individuals and entire communities,” said Dr. Shantanu Agrawal, chief health officer at Elevance Health.
The Northeast Corridor was selected to be the focal point of the initiative out of several Indianapolis communities that applied for the support, in part due to the community’s current efforts to combat food insecurity from the ground up. Community groups and residents, like Vivian and her family, have been pouring hard work and energy into their neighborhood for years. With the funding, their efforts could be amplified and new ideas from residents can be developed. The initiative relies on community input to plan strategies.
“Sometimes people come in and they analyze, but they don’t really have conversations with the people that have their feet to the ground, doing the work,” she said.
Vivian has ideas to share. She believes some people will need to be retrained to eat healthy, instead of reaching for convenient junk food. She knows that would have a significant impact in her community in improving whole health and reducing chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which can be linked to an unhealthy diet.
“I’m really happy for what this project is proposing to do,” Vivian said. “Because I feel like at long last, we’re at least starting to take a bite into this, and we recognize that it’s a multifaceted problem that’s going to require multifaceted solutions.”
Vivian’s family is doing their part, introducing their neighbors to organic produce.
“I still get, almost on a daily basis, someone coming up to our farm stand saying, ‘I want to buy eggplant, but what do I do with it?’”
Elephant Gardens is helping lead the charge for change, providing fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs, and sowing seeds for a healthier community.