Op-ed: To Improve Food Security, It’s Time to Invest in Transportation Infrastructure | Civil Eats

Op-ed: To Improve Food Security, It’s Time to Invest in Transportation Infrastructure

a senior couple waits for public transportation to take them grocery shopping

Before the pandemic, it took Colin Jones, a resident of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore, almost 3 hours to travel to and from a supermarket on the other side of town. But he would take the arduous trip once a week because it was the only way to stock up on fresh, nutritious foods.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc on Baltimore, Jones’s commute became an all-day event. And he’s not alone. For many low-income and minority populations across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the many existing challenges in accessing food using our failing, underfunded, and underprepared public transportation systems.

The American Public Transportation Association estimates that, in 2019, around 34 million people used some form of public transportation each weekday, with a growth in ridership rate of 28 percent since 1995—which is higher than the 23 percent growth in population during that same time period. In America’s largest metropolitan urban centers, those numbers are even higher.

And for many Americans, food security relies on transportation security, as public transit can be the only way to access fresh food. Food security, defined by the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, refers to having physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets one’s preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

And while millions of Americans have long faced barriers to food security, the pandemic has made it worse—in large part because public transit services have been restricted and, in some places, discontinued indefinitely.

Public health researchers have found that many transportation-insecure communities are also food insecure, experiencing higher incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Sandtown-Winchester, for example, is considered a Healthy Food Priority Area, where almost 50 percent of residents live in households without a vehicle and almost 90 percent live more than a quarter of a mile from a supermarket. In Flint, Michigan, the transportation system has established a route designed specifically to connect residents of the city’s east side to grocery stores across town. The route was subsidized after the water crisis, when nutrition was deemed an important part of the response, but rates have since returned to normal.

Infrastructural barriers such as these are often results of decades of structural racism and economic disinvestment. And when residents find themselves on one end of a 2- to 4-hour round-trip journey buy groceries, they’re more likely to spend their food dollars in corner stores, liquor stores, and convenience stocked with more affordable, highly processed foods full of fat, salt, and sugar.

Transportation decisions that are blind to food inequalities are likely to continue to undermine the health and well-being of Americans in communities like Sandtown-Winchester. The cancellation of the Red Line Light Rail—which would have served predominantly Black, low-income communities—by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan in 2015 serves as an example of a missed opportunity for transportation policy to increase connectivity and resources between east and west Baltimore and provide residents like Jones with greater mobility to access fresh foods. However, while funding for public transportation has long been inconsistent for projects in many predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, there is a sense in Washington, D.C. that change is on the way.

In February, on what would have been the 108th birthday of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, Pete Buttigieg vowed to ensure “transit equity” while serving as the Secretary of the U.S Department of Transportation (USDOT), under the Biden-Harris administration. On the official USDOT Twitter page of the Secretary Buttigieg tweeted, “@USDOT is committed to honoring her legacy by ensuring equity is central to everything we do.”

Considering the current state of our nation’s public transportation infrastructure, this is a tall order to fulfill. However, the Secretary deserves a chance like everyone else, and I have a few ideas that may help him make good on his promises—especially when it comes to ensuring access to community resources like supermarkets and fresh food for those living in disconnected communities.

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First off, the Secretary should reconsider his pledge to support President Biden’s $2 trillion dollar infrastructure plan and, instead, help build a plan that would reduce funding for new highways and increase equitable public transportation infrastructure.

The President’s plan proposes climate-friendly public transit options, stronger labor protections and an increase in union jobs. However, what President Biden’s infrastructure plan does not mention is transit equity—mechanisms to ensure that communities of color and lower income communities are better served.

In an effort to make public transportation more accessible and affordable for everyone, President Biden could help undo neighborhood segregation by encouraging Senators on Capitol Hill to approve a $10 billion dollar program to incentivize cities to remove highways and increase connectivity to resources across the city, including food.

Importantly, true transit equity calls for intentional inclusion of underrepresented groups who are presently excluded from economic and political decision-making processes.

I encourage Secretary Buttigieg to stick to the $100 billion dollar investment outlined in the climate plan he developed during his own presidential campaign. The proposed funding would allow the USDOT to map communities where residents have limited transportation options and inadequate access to basic services like grocery stores and supermarkets and would help the federal government better understand local conditions to identify federal grant programs geared toward transit equity.

Moreover, it would help cities reimagine and redevelop built-environments in those areas. An interim report developed by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg American Health Initiative and the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition provides an example of how the USDOT can use maps to assess local transit equity gaps and increase connectivity within cities.

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Public transit is imperative to keep Americans nourished. Secretary Buttigieg and other federal policymakers need to prioritize equitable and effective transportation legislation. Federal funding to meet our nation’s current challenges would help save our country’s failing public transportation systems and equip it with the necessary support to advance the health of our citizens beyond the pandemic. Failing our public transportation systems would mean failing communities—like Sandtown-Winchester in Baltimore—that rely on it the most.

Anthony Nicome is a student at Yale University and the Environmental Justice Fellow at the AAMC Center for Health Justice. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health & Engineering and previously served as a research assistant with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, U.B. Food Lab, and Baltimore Food Policy Initiative. Read more >

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