Saturday morning on the bus, I saw a woman struggling to lug five large fabric grocery bags. She kept dropping things and trying to keep her groceries out of the aisle, and had clearly made an effort to get her shopping done early (it was only about 8:00 am) to make it easier. She must have taken at least one other bus or the train with her shopping as well as the bus we were on (that line does not pass a market), so her shopping took her at least 2 hours round trip. Later, as I was enjoying a luxurious ride home from the farmer’s market, I thought about her bags of groceries as my eggs rested safely on a padded seat. Her trip was a prime example of how our physical environment–“built environment”– or infrastructure can impede or support healthy eating habits. Clearly, we can adjust our reactions to the built environment via social interactions (yay, friends with cars!) but our planners and designers should not assume those luxuries.

Most Americans do the majority of their grocery shopping at supermarkets, and most travel there in cars: their own, friends’, or family members’. Despite this, some of us don’t have cars, some may not be able to drive, and others may not have reliable cars, or the money for the fuel and maintenance needed to keep those cars running. Both rural and urban Americans face similar struggles with simply traveling from home to the store and back again, but rural Americans may face even greater barriers as many rural areas lack any public transit system or the option of taxis.

The basic goal should be to have ready access to food within the community, or people’s normal daily travels. Campaigns, stores, and funders are working on that goal (for examples, visit the Food Trust), but there will always be communities that are too small to support a full retail supermarket. In those communities, the combination of a smaller markets or good transit options can fill the gap between poor access to a broad range of healthy food and sufficient access. Select needs, like vegetables, can easily be filled seasonally by farmer’s markets, CSAs, coops, or local producers. Most places won’t have access to producers of grains, legumes, fruit, vegetables, dairy, spices, eggs, etc from January to December, so they will need a market of some sort.

Various projects have been initiated (there’s a nice list towards the end of this somewhat dated policy brief), and the general results seems to be very helpful patches that residents are happy to utilize. On the other hand, there are failures when planners and developers don’t get out and walk the streets like they live there. Creating excellent supermarket access is a complex issue, and many players can join the effort. Rebuilding streets, bus lines, and stores are excellent long-term goals, but in the short term, underutilized resources and new ideas can fill the void. What about having a weekly school bus run from the community center or along a main road, timed after kids have been dropped off and before they need picked up? Programs like Boston Organics can be redesigned to fulfill broad grocery needs, and low-cost (seriously, a $10 fee for $35 of groceries?) or free/subsidized delivery services can help make them available to all. Truck farmers in some rural areas can help fill the need for produce by delivering to a central area of an underserved area, or actually to houses. And, yes, my mother had someone who would just drive over with a selection of vegetables to sell to her in her last house. It boggled my mind.

Policy briefs aside, I’ve never seen a city bus with decent space to carry more than one shopping bag on your lap, and perhaps one on the floor at your feet if it’s not raining (wet floors) and nobody has spilled coffee, etc. Transit systems are primarily designed with the image of a commuter with a briefcase, or perhaps a briefcase and a lunch bag. Think about the woman I saw Saturday morning– she was young and fit, likely shopping for a family, and carrying five large bags plus a purse on a shopping trip that would not be practical on weekdays given the time needed and the impossibility of getting groceries on the bus during rush hour. Imagine if she was one of the many less physically fit grandparents caring for grandchildren or simply had a temporary disability, like a broken arm. What would her options be and what should they be?