There are a lot of big ideas out there for how to address "food deserts" in neighborhoods with more gas stations and fast-food chains than full-service grocery aisles. Plant large-scale community gardens. Entice national retailers to set up shop. Bring in mobile grocery stores. Teach people how to cook to create a culture of healthy eating.
For various reasons, though, these ideas often turn out to be too expensive, or unrealistic, or inadequate to the depth of a systemic social challenge.
What about a more modest intervention that might help people better connect to grocery stores where they already exist?
"I wanted to look at food access at a site scale, try to really understand it, maybe find a solution that’s feasible because there are so many non-feasible solutions," says Langley Erickson, a senior undergraduate city planning student at The Ohio State University. He designed this grocery bin that could be mounted onto the front of buses in Columbus or elsewhere:
If you look at a map of some of the most under-served zip codes in Columbus – where poverty rates are high and car ownership is low – it turns out that Central Ohio Transit Authority bus stops pretty neatly line up with grocery and corner stores. As we've previously written, we tend to define food deserts as if they existed in a world without transportation. But cars and transit networks can play a significant role in connecting people to full-service grocery stores even if none exist within walking distance.
This map of an East Columbus neighborhood, where 40 percent of households have no access to a car, suggests that the city's bus network might be better leveraged to connect people and food.
COTA already offers a similar service with a front-mounted bike rack. "I was watching people use the bus," Erickson says. "I figured if there’s a way people can bike on the bus, and still use the bus, why not give them the opportunity to store their goods?"
He modeled his design off the largest cooler he could find on the market, available from Yeti for about $1,300. He figures that grocery stores might be willing to invest in the bins to save on another sizable cost: the theft of grocery carts.
"That’s expensive in the cooler world, but that’s less than the cost of five grocery carts," Erickson says. One grocery cart generally runs about $300. And tens of millions of dollars worth of grocery carts are taken from stores in U.S. every year and never returned. "If you consider it like that," Erickson says of his proposal, "it doesn’t seem like quite as much. And as far as street infrastructure goes, that’s pretty cheap."
His model could likely hold the groceries of only three or four riders at a time. But that would be a start. And the greatest value of the bus food bin might be in its message: Bolt one of these things onto a public bus in any city, and it instantly conveys that transit agencies are invested in the problem of food access. That message would be a lot clearer than the ambiguous sign that's currently posted inside most buses: "No Food, No Drink, No Radio."