Effective Transportation Agency Practices to Support Healthy Food Accessibility

Focus Area

Environmental Considerations in Planning






Under $99k


1-2 years

Research Idea Scope

The problems of food deserts, access to healthy foods, and food system sustainability are usually framed as land use, economic development, environmental, and/or food policy problems, not as transportation problems. Yet, a small-but growing-number of studies show a relationship between transportation and access to healthy foods. The problem of healthy food access, like all accessibility problems, is multi-dimensional and requires agencies address transportation, land use, social equity, and public health in ways that fit the local community and context. As transportation agencies have a core competency in addressing accessibility challenges, they are uniquely suited to contributing to solutions to this important dimension of physical health. Further, transportation agencies control a wide range of facilities and resources which have can be potentially leveraged to support better access to healthy food, supporting the efforts of other agencies and organizations to improve public health. In recent years, there has been a rising tide in policy, research and practice to strengthen the link between health and transportation. While there is some concern that expanding the role of the state DOT to activities outside mobility, many transportation agencies are responding to calls for integrated approaches to health and health-related accessibility, including making food access part of their work. For example, The Massachusetts DOT launched a program to give farmers space for market stands at turnpike service plazas. The Chicago Transit Authority provided several transit buses that were repurposed as mobile fresh food markets. In California, legislation allows community gardens on unoccupied and unimproved public property. New York State DOT partnered to renovate an abandoned gas station as a local farmers’ market, combining agri-tourism with fresh food access to commuters. In North Carolina, the Rutherford County rural transit authority partnered with the state DOT to operate a weekly ‘grocery shuttle’ to connect low-income residents with a local food bank. The Maryland State Highway Administration sponsors a program focused on staff engagement in an agency-wide food drive program; MDSHA facilities across the state including administrative buildings, emissions testing stations, and even toll plazas served as food donation collection points. Collected, synthesized, and evaluated, such diverse practices can support and inform agencies as they increasingly integrate health into transportation decision making. The proposed project includes 6 tasks: (1) Literature review: Identify the various dimensions of food accessibility that are within the purview of transportation agencies. This portion of the project will draw from existing research and practice to define the elements of healthy food accessibility where transportation agencies can make positive contributions. (2) Survey of practice: Identify examples of existing transportation interventions to improve access to healthy food. Examples should include projects and programs implemented in urban and rural areas, along with a brief evaluation of their successes and limitations, as well as their potential for wider adoption and applicability to diverse settings. (3) Evaluation of the challenges and obstacles: Challenges to state DOT involvement in food accessibility issues include regulatory constraints such as the Rest Area Act of 1960 which limits the commercial activities allowed on roadside rest area property. Other possible issues could include the erosion of transportation-specific operations due to the use of the facility for other activities such as food markets, resulting in negative safety impacts or reduced levels of service for transportation system users. Transportation agencies may also face organizational or institutional barriers stemming from caution over taking on new areas of responsibility that may divert resources away from more traditional projects and programs. Beyond a simple list of challenges, this task should include an assessment of the motivations and concerns that underlie them, so as to help federal, state, and local agencies develop effective strategies to overcome them. (4) Case studies: Provide well-developed case studies of a selected set of practices that offer the greatest potential for impact and broader implementation. The case studies should highlight how any challenges to implementation were overcome. (5) On-line resources: Develop practitioner-ready resources that can be used to integrate food accessibility into planning, projects, and programs. These resources should aim to support agencies as they work to address health issues, whether through the adoption of new methods such as Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) or by integrating health into existing processes. Potential partners and funding sources should also be identified. (6) Future research agenda: Describe any gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed to advance capacity to address food accessibility in transportation research and practice.

Urgency and Payoff

According to the Institute of Medicine, two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese in the US, and the epidemic is responsible for 21% of national medical expenditures. Public health and medical professionals once viewed obesity as a problem of individual behaviors and choices. They now have shifted their framework toward a systems perspective that includes household, community, and policy-level risk factors. It is within this overall context that scholars and practitioners have begun to examine the relationship between obesity (and other health outcomes) and access to grocery stores and other sources of healthy food. Although residents of rural areas, low-income households, racial and ethnic minorities, older adults, persons with disabilities, and children may have ready access to food, they are the most likely populations to have limited access to healthy foods. These are the same populations that may have limited access to other essential services. Thus, this synthesis on food environments and transportation contributes to the larger policy aim of improving accessibility options for all travelers. Moreover, developing policies to increase households’ access to healthy foods will require consideration of multiple modes of passenger transport, including public transit, private automobiles, walking, bicycling, and paratransit. Because this proposed synthesis focuses on consumer food environments, it is outside of its scope to analyze freight transportation to support sustainable food production, but freight transportation is an important component of these policy issues and should be addressed in additional studies. For transportation agencies taking up the practice of HIAs, or including health factors in their performance measurement/evaluation criteria programs, the project will support their efforts by providing a ready resource of existing and emerging practices. This topic was developed by the TRB Subcommittee on Health and Transportation (ADD50-01) and the Committee on Social and Economic Factors in Transportation (ADD20). The statement was reviewed and endorsed by ADD20 and the TRB Committee on Transportation and Sustainability (ADD40).

Suggested By

Ann Hartell Vienna University of Economics and Business/Wirtschaftsuniversitat Wien +436766881098

[email protected]