Transportation Can Be Especially Complicated for the Food Insecure; NITC Research Offers Solutions

Boy carrying groceries_Crop.jpg
Principal Investigator: Ann Joslin, University of South Florida (USF)
Project OverviewTravel to Food: Transportation Barriers for the Food Insecure in Tampa Bay
Learn more about this research project by viewing the two-page Project Brief, related presentations, and the full Final Report.

In Tampa Bay, Florida, it's hard to get around without a car. For those who depend on transit, the simple task of bringing groceries home can take up an entire afternoon. 

Add the extra difficulty of food insecurity—which affects a wide variety of people and may mean they can't afford to go to the grocery store, but must travel to a food pantry—the task of procuring those groceries gets even more difficult. 

Now take away the possibility of transit. Where does that leave you? Hungry, wherever you are.

According to a new study from NITC investigators at the University of South Florida (USF), there are 136,401 people in Florida's Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties who are both food insecure and lack adequate access to transit.

Food insecurity affects a wide range of people and most acutely affects vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, seniors and individuals with disabilities.

The study, led by Ann Joslin and Kevin Salzer of USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research, was part qualitative, part quantitative. They gathered data through interviews and surveys of food organizations' staff, and also conducted a GIS analysis of transit accessibility for the food insecure. From the project, which was funded in part by a NITC Small Starts grant, emerged several recommendations to help close the transportation gaps between people and food.

First recommendation: Transit providers should make transit more efficient and straightforward for food pantry and meal provider clients. 

Through the work of the emergency food system in Tampa Bay, many food-insecure households are able to access food. However, food access is dependent on the ability to reach the food pick-up locations.

The dominance of the automobile has impacted the urban and suburban built environment in the region. This means large blocks, large arterials, neighborhoods with low connectivity, and expansive parking lots. Public transit by bus, according to the survey, was a common and important transportation mode for people to access food pantries and meal providers.

Given this, it makes sense to make minor transit adjustments such as placing bus stops closer to those food providers.

"We tend to measure access to a bus stop as being with three-fourths of a mile; reasonable walking distance for most people. Most food pantries reported they did have a stop within three-fourths of a mile. But if you're an elderly person—in the summer in Florida—that could be too much of a hike. If you're a mother traveling with children, that's a long way to carry your groceries," Joslin said.

Joslin and Salzer recommend a further analysis to determine where the highest concentrations of food insecure people without adequate access to transit are located. 

"It would be useful for transit providers to have a greater understanding of the needs of the clients of the food pantries. The average transit planner is going to be pretty knowledgeable about the grocery stores in the area, but food pantries are kind of off the beaten track and may be housed within a church or something, so it may not be obvious to the rest of the world that there is a food pantry there," Joslin said.

Second recommendation: Community stakeholders should explore multiple low-cost, transportation-improvement strategies to bridge food access gaps. 

One potential strategy is leveraging vehicles owned by faith-based organization and organizations whose missions include serving the food insecure. These organizations may donate the use of a vehicle and a volunteer driver to transport food insecure people to food pantries, meal providers or grocery stores. 

A second strategy is bus-pass programs that distribute free or reduced-cost bus passes to clients. For instance, transit agencies typically sell passes in bulk to organizations. 

A third strategy is private partnerships with retail outlets. For example, grocery stores that stand to benefit from additional customers may schedule a free or affordable shuttle pick-up to bring food-insecure customers lacking transportation to their store. 

One example of a strategy already in action in Tampa Bay is Neighborly Care. This program provides seniors transportation to their congregate dining locations. As part of the trip they stop at a food pantry so that their clients may bring home additional groceries after their meal.

"It's possible that there are more organizations out there that could assist in providing transportation if they knew they were needed," Joslin said.

Third recommendation: Establish an organizational infrastructure dedicated to transportation for the food insecure.

The reason why this recommendation makes so much sense for Tampa Bay is that there are already portions of this network in place.

In the Tampa Bay region, many of the most effective organizations that address food insecurity are part of a non-profit network called the Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger (TBNTEH). The TBNTEH’s mission is to end hunger by bringing people together to find solutions that eliminate barriers, increase access and expand the amount of nutritious food available.

Because transportation access plays a key role in the TBNTEH’s mission, it created the Transportation Innovation Group (TIG) in 2011 to explore the linkages between transportation access issues and food insecurity. Kevin Salzer, one of the researchers on this project, served as TIG’s chair.

To leverage the knowledge of these existing institutions, Salzer and Joslin recommend bringing transit authorities, and the food providers who participated in this study, into the fold so that a unified effort can be made.

Bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders—healthcare providers, faith-based organizations, food pantry staff and food providers—can lead to a better understanding of the transportation needs of the food insecure and the availability of existing transportation resources.

As part of this collaboration, organizations should ensure their clients are aware of services they may qualify for, such as paratransit or other services for the transportation-disadvantaged.

This could be particularly important for someone experiencing a financial crisis, who used to drive and has recently become transit-dependent and food-insecure. People in this situation often lack knowledge of the assistance programs that are available to them.

Although the recommendations resulting from this study focus on transportation barriers for the food insecure in the Tampa Bay region, they may have broader applicability for communities across America, particularly in rural areas where food insecurity may be even more prevalent.

Share this: