The Road Most Travel

Transportation, or rather public support for a viable comprehensive transportation solution indicative of a growing major metropolitan city, has long been a hot button issue in Atlanta.  According to a 2011 Brookings Institute Transit Accessibility Profile, Atlanta ranks 91st out of 100 metro areas for access to transit. To oversimplify, Atlantans rely heavily on cars as their primary source of transportation in lieu of robust mass transit options. There’s neither time nor space to debate the complexities of that issue here.  Instead, I want to focus on how that reality shapes the ability of our neighbors to feed themselves and their families.

The CDC states the issue bluntly, “A poor transportation system cuts off access to many food outlets—especially for those who do not own a car or have no access to reliable and affordable public transportation. Improving transportation options to and from such food sources as supermarkets and farmers’ markets increases a community's access to healthy foods.” This is a barrier and an opportunity that residents of the Westside neighborhoods know all too well.

Prior to January 2012, there had not been a major supermarket on the Westside of Atlanta since Christmas Eve 2009 when the only grocery store in the neighborhood closed. Despite opposition in other area neighborhoods, residents of the Westside welcomed the Walmart Supercenter on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. In addition to 100 jobs (60% or more held by neighborhood residents), the store brought a much needed alternative to the more than 60 corner/convenience stores that blanket the neighborhoods, yet offer few affordable, fresh and healthy options.

The devil is often in the details when it comes to food access, so let’s drill into the details for a moment.  Although Walmart is located on a main thoroughfare, accessible to more than 6 bordering neighborhoods and downtown Atlanta, transportation to the store is still an issue for many residents who rely on public transportation or walking. Combined, the neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue encompass just under a square mile. Currently MARTA’s Blue and Green train lines and 3 bus lines service Vine City and English Avenue. From the furthest border of English Avenue, the store is about 2.5 miles on foot or riding a MARTA train or bus. This does not include patrons from bordering neighborhoods that may be as many as 5-6 miles from the store, but for whom the MLK Walmart is still their nearest option. Residents will also rely on friends, family, and the ubiquitous “ride-man” to access grocery stores.

I decided to take my own transportation challenge and walk in the shoes of my neighbors without a car. Navigating the logistical challenges of traveling to and from a grocery store is hard enough when you don’t own a car, but doing so while carrying heavy grocery bags and caring for your children is an additional everyday reality.  So I borrowed a set of 22 month old twins from my neighbors (who were happy to have a break!) and embarked on my journey to the store on a blustery fall evening. Getting to the store with 60 plus lbs of baby and stroller in tow and walking uphill after a long day at work was only a small hurdle in my journey. My real challenge was managing to shop with a cart and double stroller in tow and still maintain enough mental energy to obtain several healthy meals on a budget. Convenience foods are called that for a reason!  There was a delicate balance that had to be struck between purchasing enough groceries to last for a few days while staying on budget with the amount of groceries I could successfully carry back home.

With every moment I spent shopping, I was ticking closer to disrupting my borrowed children’s dinner and bedtime.  (Note: ACFB and its employees do not condone pre-opening snacks prior to the check-out line, but I considered this an exigent circumstance as they were not my children). As I completed my journey back home with what was now 90-100 lbs. of children and groceries under ever growing darkness and exhaustion, I was hit with the awareness that if this were my daily routine,  I would not yet have reached the end of my journey. (Sidebar: Whomever invented this wonder known as a Mommy Hook is a genius!) I would still have the task of attempting to cook a healthy meal, but with little time to spare as I was already past their meal time.  Heaven forbid I forgot anything crucial (as I often do) because going back was not an option.

The added time, cost, and logistics associated with a poor transportation system provide significant barriers to many metro Atlantans obtaining the nutritious food they need to maintain and promote their overall good health. Food Oasis partners such as Healing Community Center and the Good Samaritan Health Center tout the benefits of food as a cornerstone in preventative medicine and maintaining overall health and wellness in their various gardening, cooking classes, and shop/walk with the Doc programs. Healing Community Center in partnership with Emory’s Urban Health Initiative has begun working with neighborhood organizations to offer free alternative transportation resources to improve access to healthy food for residents. They documented a recent pilot of a Transportation Ministry ride-sharing program.

Service providers, agencies and businesses can continue to work together to improve fresh and healthy food options in underserved neighborhoods, but without reliable transportation, those we serve will be left on the outside. Shifts in transportation behavior and policies will take years to come to fruition, but in the meantime we cannot continue to allow our neighbors to be excluded from basic needs like fresh and healthy foods. We need to support and grow ride-sharing programs like the Transportation Ministry and ensure transportation solutions have a major place in on-going Food Oasis strategic plans.  

We want to hear from you! Tell us your creative ideas for solutions to transportation to fresh and healthy foods. The Top 5 ideas will win an insulated “Eat, Cook, Grow” reusable shopping bag and be highlighted in a future blog.

Interested in learning more about the GA Food Oasis? Contact Cicely Garrett, Food Systems Innovation Manager at cicely.garrett@acfb.org.