Local Spotlight: Flanner House An Indianapolis nonprofit finds creative solutions for the city’s largest food desert.

Flanner House, a nonprofit supporting residents on the Northwest side of Indianapolis, works to move families from instability to self-reliance.  

But perhaps surprising for many, the organization takes a two generational approach and has done so since it was founded in 1898, says executive director Brandon Cosby. 

“We’ve always had a focus on childcare,” Cosby says. “When you support the caregivers or parents through employment services, while trying to provide a strong educational foundation for their children, you’re seeing the entire family progress.”

Boasting a variety of programs helping families, Flanner House is like the Swiss Army knife of social services. “There are all these different tools and each one has a separate function, but overall, the total package is what people need,” Cosby says. Recent initiatives like the bodega (Cleo’s Bodega & Cafe) and farm further support families by addressing food injustices.

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When Cosby first arrived at Flanner House in 2016, the community was the largest food desert in the city. With the help of John Moore, board member and son of Albert Moore (former Director of Agriculture), Cosby turned to the past for inspiration. “If you look back to the 1910s and 20s, Flanner House had a tremendous agricultural program that even included canning services, because African Americans still could not shop at certain grocery stores,” Cosby says. John Moore helped Cosby “bring the past forward” with the new Flanner farm.

The farm works in partnership with Brandywine Creek Farms and is in Watkins Park adjacent to Flanner House. The 2.5 acres of soil proved of high quality, and within the first year of operation, the farm grew 50,000 pounds of food and educated the community’s youth through the newly created FEED program, which stands for Farming, Education, Employment and Distribution. 

“Through FEED, we take 16 to 24 year olds who have dropped out, were pushed out, or have been kicked out of high school and re-enroll them in a high-school equivalency program through partnership with Marian University,” Cosby says. “We also teach them everything about urban agriculture, from cultivation to harvest to distribution.” 

Students learn a set of skills that are transferable to potential career paths. “The farm puts the kids in a position of restorative justice — in a position to feed the neighborhood,” Cosby says.

The farm grows only heirloom and heritage varieties. “What we are growing tastes like what some of our senior members remember eating,” Cosby says. “There’s an intergenerational connection forged through the farm.” 

Cleo’s Bodega & Cafe

The healthy food is made available through the organization’s bodega. Cosby says this type of smaller grocery store with constantly available goods meets the needs of families who are income constrained. “The bodega creates a model in which parents can rest comfortably knowing that even with limited means, they have put significantly healthier food in front of their kids that will have the ripple effect of transforming neighborhood health outcomes,” Cosby says.

A focus on the needs of the community has always been the aim, says Cosby. Near the farm is the organization’s orchard, and “folks can just walk by and take what they need,” he says. There are no fences or borders. Obstacles brought on by COVID-19 are lessened through the farm, which helps feed 250 families a week through an emergency distribution program. The bodega, farm and other initiatives (in spring 2021 Flanner House will open the city’s first black-owned bookstore), were built with the neighborhood and immediate community in mind. “But with the full understanding that anyone can come and be a part of the collective spirit of Flanner House,” says Cosby, who encourages everyone to come stop by. 

Visit Flanner House and Cleo’s Bodega & Cafe at 2424 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. in Indianapolis. For more info, visit flannerhouse.org.

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