Pilot Conveys Hope Across Indy

For many across the U.S., one of the greatest barriers to accessing food is transportation. But a unique partnership in Indianapolis is revealing creative ways to bridge that gap.

Toyota Mobility Foundation, Energy Systems Network (ESN), Southeast Community Services, Together in Motion, HATCH for Hunger, and UDelv, piloted a contactless food delivery service to aid Southeast Community Services’ clients from September 2021 to May 2022.

For Community Wellness Coordinator Corinne “Cori” Chatterton, who works to address food insecurity in Marion County, it was a creative solution to a distressing problem.

Cori said she heard about Toyota Mobility Foundation’s plans to pilot a contactless Door Dash-type program in Indianapolis a year ago during a conversation with a community developer. Indianapolis was selected because it is a medium-sized city laid out on a grid.

“At first, it was going to be like a Uber Eats, but I saw it as an opportunity to do something more,” Cori said. “I thought, ‘Why not use this to serve as that missing transportation piece that a lot of families who don’t have access to a vehicle face?’ It seemed like a perfect chance to evaluate a way to meet that need.”

She recommended testing the program with Southeast Community Services. The agency is home to a food pantry and offers a range of services from job training and financial counseling to GED and ESL classes. It prides itself on being a good neighbor and a source of support to its surrounding community.

“It provided an opportunity to think differently,”  said Carolyn Leffler, who works with the Southeast Community Services. “We are asking, ‘How can we collaborate more? How can we continue what has begun? And we are considering what is possible.”

Utilizing a Toyota Sienna equipped with specialized lockers and an app that connects Southeast Community Services’ food pantry, its clients, and the van driver, Southeast Community Services and HATCH for Hunger provided food to participants who struggle with a lack of transportation and food insecurity.

“Southeast Community Services and HATCH for Hunger provide valuable services in the communities they serve and the organizations that they partner with,” said Trey Ingram, North America program manager for Toyota Mobility Foundation.

“Through the project, we learned a great deal about the challenges of specific community members in accessing daily goods – and the potential future solutions that contactless delivery technologies could potentially provide.”

Participants download an app, select the food they want, and are sent a code. They can track the van’s location and are alerted as the van nears. When it arrives, participants enter the code on their assigned locker and retrieve their food. The entire process is contactless.

For the team at Southeast Community Services, the venture has been a game changer, said Leffler, a career coach turned food distribution expert.

“Prior to the pandemic we did not have any food distribution whatsoever,” Leffler said. “People came and got what they needed.”

Leffler said there were very few requests for delivery before 2020 – primarily one man whose mobility was restricted due to his reliance on an oxygen tank. But as the pandemic continued, the requests grew.

“We had some volunteers who offered to deliver food during their lunch hour,” Leffler said. “We appreciated everything they were willing to do, but they were limited because of their schedule.”

As a result, Leffler said food delivery was restricted. “We couldn’t allow it to grow.”

But once the partnership between Southeast Community Services and Toyota Mobility Foundation was established, new life was breathed into food distribution.

“We were very excited to have that opportunity,” Leffler said. “I am begging for grant money every day, and here was this chance to do something for our neighbors. Who knows where this will lead for our folks? Their future can look different. Today it is food. What’s next? Maybe their medicine. Maybe their durable goods. It answers the question, ‘How can we get it to the porch?’”