January 28, 2020

Four Ways to Address Food Insecurity through Transportation Improvements

January 24, 2020

Transportation issues, especially time and costs, make it difficult for many Americans to access to healthy food.

Residents and stakeholders recently described these experiences to a team of Urban Institute researchers. The Urban team brought food insecurity data to residents in six communities across the country to discuss how the data reflect their experience accessing healthy foods. These transportation challenges take many forms:

  • taking multiple buses in the heat of summer to get to the nearest grocery store
  • finding limited options for produce and meats after traveling to a store or food pantry
  • regularly traveling to multiple charitable food programs to piece together meals

Some places we visited were largely urban, like Travis County, Texas, (home to the city of Austin) and others were largely rural, like Perry County, Kentucky. Despite geographic differences, residents and stakeholders in every community identified high transportation costs and limited transit options as two of the biggest barriers to accessing food and other opportunities, such as jobs, health care, and education.

Both stakeholders and residents acknowledged the constant cost, time, and safety trade-offs people make to access food. Additionally, these trade-offs may be more pronounced for specific communities, such as people with limited economic resources, people living in rural areas, people with disabilities, people working second- or third-shift jobs, and people who are undocumented.

Cost trade-offs

Residents without a car or with limited funds for gas, insurance, and repairs often have trouble accessing important services and programs, including grocery stores, schools, food pantries, health clinics, and job training.

Youth in rural Perry County told us how the lack of transportation infrastructure prevented students from going to college. We heard about the benefits of a California law that enables residents who are undocumented to access driver’s licenses, but citizenship status may serve as a barrier to transportation in other areas.

When residents turn to ride sharing, they often pay a steep price. Stakeholders in rural areas said residents had to pay upwards of $60 to other residents for rides to a grocery store more than 30 minutes away.

For residents in more urban areas, ride-sharing may be viewed as an alternate transportation option. However, these services are not available in rural areas, and  residents without bank accounts or credit cards cannot access mobile ride-sharing apps even if available.. For families with cars, paying for a car and rent may take priority over spending money on nutritious foods. In Indiana County, Pennsylvania, residents frequently listed car payments and insurance as some of their highest monthly costs outside of rent.

Time trade-offs

Across all sites except Travis County, our data show residents were spending close to 30 percent of their income on transportation. However, Travis County stakeholders explained how it’s time spent stuck in traffic that really strains residents, limiting hours in which they can access services..

When grocery stores are far from home, residents must weigh the benefits of cheaper or fresher food versus spending long hours on the road. Public transportation’s limited routes and hours in more sprawling or smaller cities require leave residents to take multiple lines or spend additional time in transit.

There’s stores here, but everything is more expensive than Hanford or Fresno.… If you have a vehicle you will go out of town to buy food.… If you know someone that can give you a ride, you have to pay $60 plus you have to buy food for them. The meal costs at least $10–15, so you pay $70. That’s 30–35 minutes away. That’s a long commute just to go grocery shopping. And if you had to pay child care that’s $80, you have nothing left of your check.

—Stakeholder in Fresno County, California

Safety trade-offs

Improving pedestrian access to grocery stores could go a long way toward increasing food access. Some residents said they would like to walk or bike but feel unsafe because of the lack of sidewalks, lighting, and bike lanes, as well as intense heat or cold in some areas.

Seniors and people with disabilities reported experiencing challenges on public transportation because of the difficulty of accessing stops and funding cuts to paratransit.

Four ways to address these trade-offs

To overcome these challenges, residents have found ways to navigate transportation and food access trade-offs and have thought of creative solutions (PDF):

1. Create more accessible grocery options

More grocery options can help all residents. This strategy is two-fold and includes opening grocery stores in communities without them and expanding transportation infrastructure to reach grocery stores in other communities. For example, youth in Perry County suggested piloting mobile grocery markets that bring food to local clinics, elementary schools, and neighborhoods with limited access to food. These programs are common across the country and benefit residents by combining services in a single location.

2. Expand transportation services

Expanding public transportation hours and lines can accommodate people working second- or third-shift jobs, people with disabilities, or areas with limited socioeconomic resources that need to be connected to denser parts of the city. These expansions should also include infrastructure and design that encourages and protects biking and walking.

In Travis County, expanding existing service lines and developing new options, like rail, could link outlying areas of the county to downtown Austin. Avenues to connect displaced residents to food and support services in their old neighborhoods are needed.

3. Provide financial support

We heard from stakeholders that bus fares as low as 50 cents are still more than some residents can afford. Communities should pilot subsidized or free services, such as ride sharing or circulating shuttles to key service areas.

4. Work across sectors

When organizations are staffed by community members, collaboration can expand grocery delivery services and provide job opportunities.

One suggestion we heard from Perry County teens was to support young adults in obtaining commercial driver’s licenses via classes at the community college. With these licenses, they could transport charitable food donations to outlying areas or to families experiencing transportation barriers.

Transportation planning needs to include residents to ensure resources are allocated in ways most beneficial to those who have been historically excluded or who continue to suffer from legacies of residential segregation and neighborhood disinvestment.

Addressing food insecurity must include creative ideas to reduce transportation costs and increase access to transportation. Those managing food programs and working in rural and urban development must consider resident experiences in managing food and transportation trade-offs, as well as their ideas for combating these challenges.

Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.