INDIANAPOLIS – Grants totaling $35 million are being distributed across Indiana to help make communities healthier.

The Health Issues and Challenges grants focus on several areas impacting Hoosiers’ health, from access to fresh food and proper nutrition to tobacco use and lead exposure.

Volunteers from Gleaners Food Bank travel across 21 Indiana counties to make sure Hoosiers don’t go hungry. But officials say it’s still not enough to meet the need.

“From December through end of March, we had seen about a 40% increase in the number of households in line, all attributable to price inflation,” said John Elliott, president and CEO of Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana.

Gleaners will use the $25,000 grant it received to add 15 new mobile food pantries in three rural counties: Fayette, Jackson and Wayne, Elliott said.

In those counties, nearly 20,000 Hoosiers lack consistent access to adequate food, according to Gleaners data.

“Those are not high-population counties, but because of that, that means there’s a lack of facilities and services and resources in those counties,” Elliott said.

The grants were awarded by the Indiana Department of Health and paid for by federal COVID relief funds from the American Rescue Plan.

The Wayne County Health Department received a $122,000 grant to hire two new staff members to work with families exposed to lead.

“69.4% of our homes were built prior to 1978, so we know we have a lot of housing that may have some lead paint in it,” said Christine Stinson, executive director.

“It’s always heartbreaking to know that Indiana sits in some of the worst national health rankings,” said State Rep. Ann Vermilion (R-Marion), who wrote the legislation that created the grant program. “Right now we’re in, like, 41st.”

Vermilion said she would like to see lawmakers allocate more funding for public health in the future.

“When we give $50 million to public health and we do see an improvement in public health outcomes, it gives a little credence to a larger dollar amount that the Indiana General Assembly should be looking at,” State Rep. Vermilion said.

Vermilion said she believes other changes should also be considered.

“How do we evaluate trauma in the state of Indiana?” she said. “How do we evaluate how we take care of patients in rural areas different than metro urban areas?”

The legislature allocated $50 million total to this program, so additional grants will be awarded at a later time, Vermilion said.

Later this summer, a commission created by Gov. Eric Holcomb will issue recommendations on ways to improve Indiana’s public health system. Those proposed changes will likely require action from the legislature.

For a full list of grant recipients, click here.