Improving Access to Local Food Via Transit (Goal 6)

April 15, 2011

"Environmental sustainability, access, and our collective well-being must combine with mobility and safety as the cornerstones of our transportation investments. The following report represents an important contribution to our emerging understanding of the connections between transportation and public health and is an invaluable resource for policymakers and all those interested in building healthy communities. With a greater recognition of the strong linkage between public health and transportation, I believe we can build a network that supports our mobility and creates access and economic strength while promoting equity, sustaining our good health and quality of life."
- Representative Jim Oberstar, referencing the Healthy, Equitable Transportation Policy Report released by the PolicyLink, Prevention Institute and Convergence Partnership

Transit connects people to the other people, places, and things that shape their lives in an environmentally friendly and socially responsible way. With its sprawling network of trains, buses, and trolleys, SEPTA provides residents of Greater Philadelphia with access to fresh food, reducing the region's carbon footprint while supporting the economic vitality and overall livability of the communities it serves.

According to DVRPC's recent Greater Philadelphia Food System Study, food access can mean several things, including physical access (no stores in a neighborhood, or limited transportation between residential and retail areas), financial access (low household income, total lack of income, or lack of cooking facilities or storage space), or a lack of personal knowledge of healthy eating habits. SEP-TAINABLE limits the definition of food access to physical access only, although each use of the phrase carries significance.

Improved access to food and transit contribute to the development of vibrant and healthy communities, making them interconnected goals in SEPTA's sustainability plan. Understanding the characteristics of communities with higher concentrations of grocery and food stores helps regional planners see the broader economic and social equity impacts and can help drive transit policies.

Additionally, the timing is right from the local and federal policy level, as well as initiatives from committed NGO partners. From a national focus, the report, The Transportation Prescription: Bold New Ideas for Healthy, Equitable Transportation Reform in America, by the PolicyLink and Prevention Institute, lays out key policies and programs that would help improve health outcomes in vulnerable communities, create economic opportunity, and enhance environmental quality. From obesity and asthma to fresh-food access and pedestrian safety, transportation and health are inextricably linked.

"Low-income Americans are hit hard by the double-whammy of poor health and poor access to transportation," said Judith Bell, president of PolicyLink and a co-author of the report. "Policymakers too often don't see the connection between these two problems, though. Congress can make an enormous difference in the health of Americans by encouraging safer, less-polluting forms of transportation and ensuring those new transportation options help boost economic development in vulnerable communities, and connect them to opportunity and essential goods and services."

The report - commissioned by the Convergence Partnership, a collaboration of funders who have come together with the shared goal of changing policies and environments to better achieve the vision of healthy people living in healthy places - lays out 11 key policy proposals, including:

  • Encouraging and funding healthy and environmentally responsible transportation options like buses, light rail, subways, biking, and walking;
  • Targeting transportation investments to low-income communities and communities of color in order to provide much needed access and lower health disparities;
  • Opening up the transportation planning process by involving local residents and committing to accountability and transparency so community members can have a say in what their needs are; and
  • Promoting the health benefits of reducing injuries from traffic crashes, encouraging physical activity, and improving respiratory health.

These findings are imperative from a transit perspective in that they show the clear linkage to transit contributing to livable, sustainable communities and not just getting people to and from work.

The chart above, extracted from the DVRPC study, illustrates that per capita food expenditures for Philadelphia and peer regions rival transportation and healthcare as a proportion of overall household expenditures. Improved access to both food and transportation options could reduce overall household expenditures and create new opportunities for increased spending on healthier food options. A healthier diet could, in turn, reduce healthcare costs.

Locally, Greenworks Philadelphia moved access to local food to the forefront of the City's sustainability agenda. Its target - to bring local food within 10 minutes of 75 percent of residents - will require more than just efforts to create demand for locally grown foods and expanding local food source points. It will require a concerted, collaborative effort to provide high-quality transit service that connects residents to sales locations. The Mayor's Office, in partnership with SEPTA, DVRPC, and the Food Trust, proposes to develop a strategy to address local food access constraints. The strategy will outline the policy opportunities and initiatives that the City and various partners can adopt to promote access to fresh food via smart transportation policy and planning.

SEPTA has also been working with The Food Trust and Farm to City to plan for additional locations for farmers markets at transit centers. SEPTA is a partner in The Food Trust's 'A Food Plan For the Delaware River Waterfront' initiative to plan for new food destinations along the Delaware River to connect the waterfront to its neighborhoods, creating opportunity for community and economic development, as well as recreational activities on and along the river. Furthermore, this partnership will evaluate best locations to pilot farmers markets on SEPTA property. The primary driver in the choice of location is foot traffic. High traffic stations such as Olney Station, Frankford Transportation Center, and 30th Street Station are being considered for expansion of The Food Trust's annual farmers market initiative.

Baseline & Target

SEPTA is a committed stakeholder in the City of Philadelphia's Greenworks goal to bring fresh food to within 10 minutes of 75 percent of residents by 2015. SEPTA has established its own complementary target to launch three new farmers market locations on SEPTA property by 2015.

A Plan to Improve Performance

Support the City of Philadelphia's efforts to combat "food deserts." Over the course of 2010, The Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities mapped fresh food vendors in the city to identify regions where fresh food is unavailable - areas known as "food deserts." A component of this study is determining the ability of public transit to offset the detriments of food deserts by giving residents access to fresh food stores in different neighborhoods. SEPTA has supported this study by providing complete ridership data on all of its routes. As the project moves from research to implementation, SEPTA should continue its support by considering the study's recommendations in future service planning.

Partner with The Food Trust to establish farmers markets at SEPTA stations. The Food Trust has expressed strong interest in hosting farmers markets on SEPTA property. These markets would provide riders with immediate access to locally-produced food and draw discretionary riders onto the system at no expense to SEPTA. Participating vendors pay a small fee ($30-$40) to The Food Trust, which in turn manages the market. The Food Trust has demonstrated experience partnering with public sector agencies and could collaborate with SEPTA on grant applications to grow a "food and transit" program.

Continue Participation in DVRPC's Food System Stakeholder Committee. DVRPC's Food System Study created a Food System Stakeholder Committee to convene regional knowledge experts on the subject of food access for the Greater Philadelphia region. SEPTA currently sends a representative to the committee's quarterly meetings, and should continue to participate in these discussions as an engaged stakeholder in the study's progress. As a result of this two-year planning process, DVRPC released a formal food system plan in February 2011, which will continue to guide SEPTA's efforts.

Participate in an Employer-Sponsored Community-Supported Agriculture program. Employees at SEPTA headquarters will have opportunity to participate in a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The CSA program, Farm to SEPTA, will kick off in June and provide for 6-8 produce varieties and a dozen farm fresh eggs every two weeks. To bring awareness to the program and to educate employees on the benefits of fresh local foods, SEPTA will hold an educational seminar as part of its "Wellness Wednesday" program.

What's Next

Next week, we'll go into specifics of SEPTA's efforts to ensure that its employees have access to fresh local foods, as well as initiatives already underway with The Food Trust and Farm-to-City to launch new farmers' markets at passenger locations for the upcoming season.