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Transportation, Food Security and Local Economies
Sarah Rich, 18 Feb 07
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In low-income urban communities, lack of access to healthy food poses a Catch-22. Supermarket chains shun neighborhoods where the customer base lacks an adequate food budget, yet traveling to grocery stores in more affluent areas stretches those residents' scarce resources even further (and takes local money to outside economies). As a result, low-income families tend to shop for cheap, nutrient-deficient foods in nearby liquor stores and bodegas, and eat very little fresh, wholesome food.

We've talked before about this problem, mostly in presenting solutions related to bringing fresh food into the city and growing your own, but in the absence of CSAs and time to cultivate one's urban plot, public service systems and local economies ought to support the basic human right to obtain adequate nutrition. While grocery chains continue to hedge their bets around placing stores in low-income neighborhoods (and residents continue to debate the overall benefit of such an addition), there are two key solutions for facilitating food access in underserved areas: a public transit system that coordinates routes which connect well-stocked groceries to residents without wheels, and locally owned and operated groceries which are strong and networked enough to supply the fresh food people need.

The Community Food Security Coalition published a report a few years ago (downloadable PDF here) underscoring the significant correlation between inadequate transportation and malnutrition. They included a number of case studies in US cities which were experimenting with transit programs -- private, public and non-profit -- for food access. Most of those were nascent at the time, and still bumping up against an ingrained disconnect between planning and policy on the government versus the industry side.

Though issues such as cost of service are often cited, the difficulties in establishing such programs have been reinforced by the inability of government and industry to connect the issues of access and transportation needs to food security and food planning considerations. As a consequence, the costs of such programs almost invariably seem to outweigh their benefits, underlined by the fact that many benefits of a food access approach appear hard to quantify and are thus seen as items distinct from traditional balance sheet considerations.

There is a sort of implicit "intrinsic value" idea here which is commonly used in discussing the higher price tags on organic food, pointing out that organic farming practices spare a cost to the earth and to our own health that we can't afford (or that is far more costly in the long term), thus adding an "intrinsic value" which we pay for at the checkout. It begs the question: What is the cost to society of keeping barriers in place that prevent our urban poor from accessing the means to keep themselves healthy?

In response to the food-transit connection highlighted in research like this, food policy councils in a number of US cities have since established relationships with their local transit authority to influence route planning around the location of grocery stores. Austin, Texas ran a "grocery bus" for several years which apparently no longer runs, but its existence bumped food access up the priority list for many municipalities. Still, most of the consistently operating shuttle services from home to supermarket are private and serve primarily senior citizens, who are doubtless important and also often low-income, but only represent a fraction of underserved urban populations.

Another paper on food access and transportation came out more recently from the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, when obesity was pulling into the lead as the number one cause of preventable death in the United States, and concerns were rising over obesity-related illness and poor nutrition. This new paper upstaged the problem and chose instead to focus on the opportunity of the situation, as well as to connect a few additional dots in the food system picture, illustrating how well-planned transit could simultaneously improve food access and the local economy.

The opportunity at that time lay in the potential reauthorization of federal transportation funds generally allotted for highway systems repair, turning the focus toward "equity, access, and multi-modal linkages." This would include not only facilitating mobility for transit-dependent urbanites, but also looking to local small farmers at the outskirts of the city for whom the transport of small quantities of produce had become a financial strain due to minimum load quotas for subsidized transport. With all of these dots connected, locally produced, fresh food would be able to reach the city, and residents would be able to reach the food -- a mutually beneficial web.

The reauthorization of the transportation funds was enacted in 2005 as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). But the recommendations laid out in the UEPI paper don't pertain exclusively to this legislation. Their suggestions outline important goals for maintaining the vitality of the local food economy, and can be aspired to not only by government, but by other local organizations and institutions:

* Ensure existing and new transit systems provide direct connections between low-income communities and food retail locations
* Fund transportation programs to increase access to fresh produce and healthy food for seniors, schools, child-care centers, and after-school programs
* Provide incentives for food and farmers' markets that provide customers free or low-cost transportation
* Coordinate economic development efforts and transportation and land use policies to site new food and farmers' markets at transit hubs.

* Support small and medium scale cooperative food and transportation ventures
* Reduce federal subsidies for large-scale transportation projects that primarily benefit large commodity producers
* Fund programs that allow small farmers to transport produce to institutional buyers like schools and hospitals
* Fund the development and dissemination of mobile "farmers' markets" with Electronic Benefits Transfer capabilities

Change to government policy and planning can obviously be incredibly slow, particularly when the change has to do with helping people with minimal resources. Likewise, big business has been sluggish to cater to potential customers where they perceive a financial risk. Yet obesity and poor nutrition in low-income areas continue to escalate rapidly. So residents in these communities have been innovating their own way towards better access by developing local programs that bolster their own economies and pave the way towards better health.

One stellar (and transportation-related) program which we've long admired but never highlighted in detail is People's Grocery, a small mobile market housed in a former mail carrier truck, which brings fresh, organic food to the residents of West Oakland. The truck runs on biodiesel and plays music from a solar-powered sound system. The market procures around 30% of its produce from three local urban gardens and its own 2-acre plot, and the rest from other local farms who sell to surrounding farmer's markets.

People's Grocery launched nearly four years ago and quickly became a positive force in the local community, and a model for similar programs now sprouting around the country (allegedly there are at least fifty in the works today). Now the team is upping the ante and working hard to open a large, cooperative grocery near the West Oakland BART station, which would have a greatly increased capacity to serve far more of the community at once. The crew behind People's Grocery offers a very honest, informative assessment of their accomplishments and challenges on their website -- a helpful resource for other groups trying to start this kind of initiative in their own neighborhoods.

In New Orleans the People's Grocery model has been embraced where Katrina stripped many communities whose resources were already scarce down to the bare minimum. The New Orleans Food Coop had been gearing up to open a storefront in the summer of 2005, but the storm demolished their plans. With local farms and farmer's markets still recuperating, the coop decided to apply for grant money to launch a mobile market.

The worker-ownership cooperative model for local business is thriving, as well, on the east coast, where Green Worker Cooperatives (GWC) has spent the last couple of years building infrastructure to establish environmentally-friendly businesses and local jobs for people in the South Bronx. GWC's first mission was to establish a construction material reuse center to make something positive out of the massive amount of demolition waste landing in that part of town day in and day out. Beyond that, though, founder Omar Freilla (who I saw speak at Bioneers in 2005 and found to be perhaps the most compelling guest at the conference) has been running training sessions through the GWC's "Green Worker Co-op Academy," graduating trainees with skills in co-op operations, communication, meeting facilitation, and outreach, as well as basic knowledge of local environmental problems. This kind of training could be invaluable in a place like West Oakland where the development of a neighborhood co-op grocery requires some community know-how to get the business up and running.

Both of these models are about closing loops and establishing networks that can support and sustain communities independent of larger forces. Transit into and out of low-income neighborhoods is important in light of the fact that so few businesses have come in from outside to offer immediate resources. But in the long run, it's business from inside the community -- operations run by and serving the local residents -- that can restore physical and economic health there. In the South Bronx and in West Oakland, it's the residents who are working to meet many of the goals that organizations like the UEPI suggest be met by governing bodies, such as coordinating farmer's markets near transit hubs and arranging for farm stands to accept EBT cards (something that now exists in many cities), bringing healthy foods into schools and senior centers, and teaching people how to prepare and eat healthful food. Reallocation of government funds takes time and ultimately keeps people dependent on systems far beyond their sight or reach, whereas communities who establish their own local living economies have the power to steer and accelerate their own vehicle towards positive growth.

* Though we're highlighting programs in the United States, the problem of obesity and poor nutrition in urban communities is one that plagues cities all over the world, and innovative solutions for connecting those people to healthier choices can be found globally, too. If you know of some projects and initiatives of this nature outside the US, please tell us about them in the comments.

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The article mentions the difficulty in transporting fresh food to blighted neighborhoods. Walk through any poor neighborhood and what's the one building that is sure to be present? It's the convenience store, where cigarettes and liquor is bought. Why don't the owners of these stores wise up and include locally grown, organic vegetables in their establishments? The beer has to be chilled so why not place a bag of organic lettuce nearby? This would serve a dual purpose and everyone would win, except the corporate grocery stores.

Posted by: Steve Gitre on 20 Feb 07

Addressing Steve's comment, above, produce is actually a very low-margin department in the grocery industry (i.e., retailers don't make much money selling it in comparison to other items in the store). This is partly because demand is high and so supply is high and so it is very competitive. Fresh produce is also not a "value added" product like manufactured products, like the beer, cigarettes, and junk food sold at convenience stores. In short, convenience store owners, and any grocery market owner, are not likely to substitute a low-margin product like lettuce or tomatoes for something like beer--which they will make more money on. This is why I'm a strong believer in cooperative grocery. When you take the profit motive out of doing business, you can get away with making only enough money to cover the costs of purchasing food, running the store, and hedging for some healthy growth, which in turn better serves the community instead of lining some owner's pockets.

Convenience store chains who are in it for money aren't going to promote good nutrition out of the goodness of their hearts if it costs them. That's why concerned citizens need to step up to the challenge of getting organized and educated to run their own community-owned stores.

Thanks for the informative treatment on this issue, Sarah.

Posted by: Matt Eppelsheimer on 22 Feb 07

Another part of the Catch-22 is that since fresh fruits and vegetables are not a common food item, those who live in the low income communities probably don't learn how to cook vegetables and fruits (actually, it seems that most Americans are not learning how to cook as they grow up). And thus fresh fruit and veggies are unknown objects -- both in terms of taste and how to prepare them.

Posted by: Marc on 24 Feb 07

One such program in Toronto is Bike Roots, run by Greenest City. They do food delivery by cargo bike.

Of course I wonder how effective they are in the winter (particularly in a city like Toronto), and in suburban areas where many of this city's disadvantaged communities live.

Posted by: Ron Nurwisah on 25 Feb 07

Sarah, you rock! Another great story. I believe there are more efforts underway in this arena. I keep hearing of a lot of urban farming projects. The Oakland renaissance and Adamah in Detroit for example. I believe this is a huge opportunity to get folks reconnected with the land and our food. Along with comes the opportunity for local small business to be an outlet for food and other locally made products.

Posted by: Sustainable Sean on 26 Feb 07



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