Photograph by Steven Higgs

Bloomington-area citizens are increasingly turning to area social service agencies for help feeding themselves. The Bloomington Alternative has begun a journalistic investigation into poverty in Bloomington called "The Other Bloomington."

Anyone familiar with Bloomington knows that we operate on a different calendar here. In college communities like ours, summer arrives early, just about the time the redbuds bloom and tomato plants hit the soil in South-Central Indiana.

Consistent with that academic calendar, summer has arrived in Bloomington. And just a little more than a week into it, I can tell you that 2008 is going to be a good one.

For example, Alternative summer always means that a new group of aspiring young journalism students, eager to learn more about craft and community, join our cause. Already this year, three of my former students and I have begun reporting a project we're calling The Other Bloomington, which will be an in-depth, journalistic exploration of poverty in Bloomington.

We're launching the project in this issue with "Hunger spikes in Bloomington" by Jaclyn Baker and "Food bank reaches warehouse deals" by Audree Notoras, and we have a still-evolving, ambitious agenda of stories and angles to pursue over the summer.

Links to "The Other Bloomington"


Before I elaborate on The Other Bloomington, I want to let readers know that this project is in addition to all of our regular features and ongoing projects.

For example, summer also means a new archive of student work from my reporting classes over the past semester, which, starting this issue, we are sharing with our readers via the Student Reports section.

We hope to re-emphasize our coverage of LGBT issues, as evidenced by Jaclyn's story on The Laramie Project, a play about the Matthew Shepard hate crime put on by Bloomington High School North theater students.

And, as Amber Kerezman explains in her Indiana Environment Revisited contribution this issue, she and I are continuing our examination into the reasons why Indiana, which played such an important role in this year's presidential primaries, ranks 49th in the nation in environmental quality. Forbes Magazine, by the way, is just the latest entity to offer such evidence of Indiana's disgrace.

Links to "Indiana Environment Revisited" & "Amber's blog"

Let's be serious. We're talking shit here, serious shit. Indiana's leaders, like Sen. Evan Bayh, Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana State Legislature, have literally allowed their corporate sponsors to despoil our air, water and land, not to mention our bodies, to frightening degrees.

Photograph by Steven Higgs

The Alternative will continue the "Indiana Environment Revisited" project this summer. The environmental catastrophe of combined sewer overflows is the next issue under the microscope. Journalist Amber Kerezman, left, has been backgrounding herself on CSOs and will be visiting and reporting from Hartford City soon.

I once had a dog who uncontrollably soiled his own bed. He was mentally disturbed. And he didn't live very long.

Next week Amber and I are off to a park in Hartford City that sits on the edge of the Little Lick Creek. Hartford City is due north of Muncie in Blackford County and downstream from 17 combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which, by design, pour untreated human waste into the creek during heavy rains or snow melts.

Amber has been bringing herself up to speed on the subject of CSOs. I'll refer you to her piece 'The Water was Black' for background and urge you to stay tuned.


Back to The Other Bloomington project, the title of which comes from the 1962 book The Other America, which has long been credited as a force behind President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."

Written by Michael Harrington, The Other America exposed the wretched poverty that plagued America's inner cities amid the affluence of the post-war era. In it, Harrington wrote of a "subculture of misery."

The public-relations aspect of contemporary local politics notwithstanding, the reality is that such a subculture exists in Bloomington. And it has been steadily increasing through the years.

In the last two weeks we've spoken with three front-line advocates for the other Bloomington -- Brooke Gentile from Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, Joel Rekas from the Shalom Center and Julio Alonso from Hoosier Hills Food Bank (HHFB). They've confirmed our operating thesis.

As Jaclyn notes in her story Hunger Spikes in Bloomington, Gentile told us that demand for food at Mother Hubbard's, a food pantry that provides groceries to those in need, more than doubled in one month. And a significant proportion of the "Hub's" clientele work, many of them multiple jobs.

Alonso said Hoosier Hills, which collects and distributes food to agencies that feed the hungry, has likewise seen dramatic upticks in need. In 2007, demand for food increased in all six counties that HHFB serves, anywhere from 20 to 400 percent. Monroe County saw a 50 percent increase.

Photograph by Steven Higgs

The number of truckloads of food for the hungry from the Hoosier Hills Food Bank has increased steadily over the agency's 26 years. Demand for Monroe County increased 50 percent in 2007 and is up sharply so far in 2008.

Rekas, whose Shalom Center provides meals and other services to the homeless, says the number of beds for those who find themselves without shelter has held steady at 28 for the past five years.

Today, he said, for every person who sleeps in a Bloomington shelter, two to three sleep in cars, tents, cheap motels or, citing Roger Miller's song "King of the Road," behind "every lock that ain't locked when no one's around."

According to the U.S. Census, 44.3 percent of all single women in Bloomington with children under 5 live in poverty.

The nearest shelter for a homeless family, Rekas said, is in Martinsville.

Contrary to the image portrayed by the media and community leaders, another Bloomington does exist. And like Michael Harrington's other America of the 1950s and 60s, it is largely invisible.

We're going to spend some time this summer changing the visibility portion of the equation.

Steven Higgs can be reached at .