USDA documents transportation barriers to food access among low-income households

By Bill Holloway

Recently released findings from the National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) provide a valuable glimpse into how low-income people access food and the challenges they face meeting this most basic need.

The survey, which involved 4,286 households, provides data on where people bought most of their groceries and how they travel to and from the store. The respondents fall into three income groups: those with household incomes below the federal poverty level (FPL), those with incomes between 100% and 185% of FPL, and those making more than 185% of FPL. Respondents were further divided based on their participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), as well as on their food security status.

Some of the more interesting findings from a transportation policy perspective are:

  • While the majority of households travel to their primary food store using their own car, about 35% of those receiving SNAP benefits, as well as those living below the poverty line but not on SNAP, use some other means—either borrowing someone else’s car or using another mode (transit, bike, walking, etc.).
  • Food insecure households are more than three times as likely to walk, bike, or take transit to their primary food retailer as households making more than 185% of FPL. Food security status was determined based on a series of 10 questions from USDA’s 30-day Adult Food Security Survey.
  • Most households, even those in the lowest income categories, choose to do their primary grocery shopping at a location nearly twice as far from home as their nearest supermarket due to considerations such as price, selection, or other factors.

Planners and policymakers should keep in mind the critical role transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure play in the lives of disadvantaged residents. Even in neighborhoods where residents have access to a nearby supermarket, access to a network of transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure is critical to ensure that residents are not beholden to a single retailer.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.