Transit is Key to Solving Our National Obesity Crisis

Groceries Bus stop

A staple of every household’s week is a trip to the supermarket.

Maybe you jump in your car for a 10-minute drive, or get on a bus or metro or your bike for a short ride. You likely don’t think much about this trip because it’s straightforward, simple.

But in Baltimore, more than 73,000 people – 5 percent of the metropolitan population – have a very tough time with this essential trip.

Because of low income, these families don’t own a car and instead rely on MTA’s buses, and the lonely one-line metro and one-line light rail. With these limited transit options, the trip often takes more than 30 minutes one way to get to any supermarket.

They might be able to visit a few different corner stores in that time, but corner and convenience stores don’t count because, not only are they typically less affordable, they carry more brands of cigarettes than they do types of vegetables. With only cigarettes, chips, and alcohol accessible within a half hour, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that car-less families can’t access the healthy food they want and need.

Lack of transportation has a significant impact on diet. Adults with no supermarket within a mile of their homes are 25 to 46 percent less likely to have healthy diets. Without access to healthy food, rates of diabetes and obesity increase, creating additional costs on families that already budget heavily.

Some might say that simply improving access to supermarkets will not necessarily increase consumption of healthy food, but it’s clear that access does in fact make a difference. One multi-state study in the American Journal of Public Health found that consumption of produce increased 32 percent for each additional accessible supermarket. If healthy food is available and accessible, low-income families will buy it.

There are ways to make healthy diets possible, including:

  • We can bring supermarkets to underserved areas or increase fresh food availability at corner stores.
  • We could also focus on improving transportation options, and this might be our best bet. By improving transportation options, we connect people to more than just a supermarket, but also to jobs, schools, and other amenities. There is also evidence that fixed-line transit brings significant economic development to surrounding areas, which may bring jobs to low-income areas where transit improvements are made.

We are all familiar with food deserts, which have been brought into public consciousness by people as varied as Michelle Obama and author Michael Pollan. But the general idea of food deserts is not enough. We must understand the particular circumstances of each city, and each food desert. Each is unique and the solutions will need to be unique as well.

A big part of those changes can undoubtedly be provided by transportation options for people without easy access to personal vehicles.

(I’m currently writing a report on public transit’s role in employment and supermarket access, titled Considering Public Transit: New insights into job and healthy food access for low-income residents in Baltimore, Maryland.)

Photo by Sascha Kohlmann

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3 Comments or Mentions

3 Comment(s)

Koos Fransen

Hi

Very interesting ideas on food deserts and accessibility of primary facilities (e.g. supermarkets).
You should definitely taka a look at the following paper by Steven Farber et al. on this topic: http://usj.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/02/19/0042098009353626.short

Especially the way the authors incorporate the temporal aspect into their analysis is very interesting.

Good luck with your study’s follow up!

Kind regards,
Koos

Reply
Jean SmilingCoyote

The title of this article is so simplistic – it’s just wrong as written. Mass transit can be part of the key. But not the whole key. One big problem with mass transit is that the volume and weight of groceries quickly becomes burdensome to both the shopper and the vehicle, which isn’t normally one made to accommodate shoppers with groceries in volumes they can’t put on their laps. Fewer shopping trips using mass transit mean bigger, heavier loads, either in tote bags or in shopping carts. Many shopping carts don’t have hooks to hold them open, so can start folding up when being hauled up stairs to mass transit. They get in the way when on the floor.
I can’t afford auto access due to unemployment and can walk to grocers with or without a shopping cart.
Solutions to obesity don’t just require geographic access to healthful foods. People need money to access health clubs and hiking and backpacking opportunities. People getting SNAP need higher benefits for healthful foods.
Do-gooders who want to help solve the obesity crisis must “understand the particular circumstances of each” individual afflicted or at risk, not just cities and their food deserts.

Reply
Robert DeDomenico

Groceries could be distributed by Physical Internet Utility. Why must people make the trip to retrieve them? Jack and Jill don’t go fetch a pail of water these days… they open the faucet! Utilities make today’s cities livable, but the lack of applying available technology to implement just one additional utility is leaving us dealing with a significant amount of unnecessary road congestion. Learn more at http://www.cargofish.com.

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