Living Car-Free in a Food Desert
I have been without a car for about 3 months now, and have to spend a good chunk of time planning around and acquiring food. There are a number of challenges to getting around a city like Nashville – not known for great transit options – without a car. Below, I’m sharing some of my methods, challenges, helpful supplies, and privileges that make things easier for me but which suggest how difficult getting to food in a food desert can really be. It’s clear to me that some of the tools I use to make things mostly work are not available to everyone, and that access to fresh food you can cook at home is a real challenge when one is car-free by necessity or choice.
How I Get Around: workplace shuttle; walking; taxis; rides from gracious people; ZipCars; city bus.
Despite having a graduate degree, I sometimes find the bus schedules confusing – I can’t imagine what they are like for someone with low literacy or other difficulty processing that type of information. Our local city transit authority has two “route finder” tools on its website, and they each give different results, times, and route recommendations in response to the same input. Some buses – including one close to me – don’t run at all on weekends. I have typically found that it’s faster to actually walk to the nearest grocery store than it is to get to and ride the bus.
Walking obviously presents challenges in extreme weather, and raises issues of pedestrian and neighborhood safety. In general, I have to do much more planning for how to get to and from everything, and can’t really spontaneously just go pick up this or that thing. This is good for reducing my consumerism, but bad when there is one thing I need and it’s not available anywhere nearby. There is no simple, quick running out to pick up a key ingredient here – it may not even be available anywhere within a reasonable walking distance.
How I Get Food
Once a month or so, I’ll get a ZipCar, go to the grocery store, and stock up on non-perishable items like cat food, toilet paper, and freezer and pantry items. When I’ve done this trip walking, it’s an hour each way with spotty sidewalks – I definitely recommend having more than one person or one of those grocery carts if you’re going to walk. My aunt, who is a bus driver, says that some people use rolling luggage, which seems like a reasonable, if weird-looking, idea.
There is farmer’s market on the workplace campus once a week, but I have to make sure not to get carried away. It’s easy to pick a few things that are surprisingly heavy (like watermelons and milk in glass bottles) without thinking about how hard it will be to walk with everything. I can really only use this farmers’ market to supplement my bulk purchases, but it’s nice to support local farmers through these purchases. After the monthly stock up, the farmers’ market is how I keep fresh produce in my diet. Still, there is less than I’d like, because everything has to be planned in advance and can’t just be picked up as the mood for some particular good meal strikes.
I also walk to nearby international and convenience markets – I’m in an area of town with a good number of these. A lot of the products here are pretty much the polar opposite of local goods, but many of these are locally owned small businesses. I can find things like some produce, condiments and canned goods, and even fresh sandwiches or frozen fish.
Sometimes, I just have to have a pizza delivered. There are pretty much no really healthy delivery options in this town, especially for small orders outside of lunch hours, so it’s pizza or Chinese when I need food brought to me. GoWaiter, a restaurant delivery service, has become available in Nashville, which provides a few more healthy options from a limited set of restaurants – the costs can add up quickly if ordering too often, though. There used to be a grocery delivery service, but it closed a couple of years ago, and prices were typically a little higher than I think would be reasonable for regular use in a neighborhood like mine (which is not a high-income area).
Some privileges I have that make it easier, which not everybody has access to:
- Two thirtysomething bodies without asthma, disability, or any limitations that make it especially unsafe to deal with extreme heat and heat-related air pollution or make us unable to get around by walking – often with the need to carry things.
- Access to ZipCars, which are only located at university campuses in Nashville. I happen to work at one of those campuses, and am able to take a shuttle or city bus to it for free. I also got a discounted subscription rate for ZipCar thanks to my university affiliation.
- Money to sometimes just take a taxi.
- No kids, so no little people who have to be watched while I take up to three hours to get to the store and back, or who have to tag along with no sidewalks and 90+ degree temps.
- Constant access to the internet at work and home. This makes it easy to quickly look up walking routes, directions, and the dreaded bus schedules. When I need to figure out to/if I can get somewhere, I turn to the internet.
- Friends and colleagues with cars, who give me rides when it’s just too hot or hailing or I way overdid it at the farmers’ market.
- Initial access to a rental car in order to do the first stock up on food and other supplies at the beginning; money to buy those supplies and more than a week’s worth of food at a time. I get paid monthly – if I got paid weekly, I think it would be a lot harder to make sure to save up a chunk for monthly stocking up.
Without these things, it would be much harder for me to even approach a semi-healthy diet. When you can only make limited trips to the store and have to stock up, it’s hard to stock up on healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, which go bad faster, and there’s only so much freezer space for those.
These are some of the things I picked up or had on hand that really help. This is the summer list – in the winter I’m going to need to make sure to have gloves, a hat and scarf, a good coat, and the like.
- backpack, and/or luggage or cart for hauling the actual groceries
- umbrella – smaller type that fits well in the backpack
- rain jacket – I suggest *both* the umbrella and rain jacket. It’s hard to overestimate how wet you can get walking home in a downpour.
- wide brimmed hat with a chin strap – I don’t wear sunglasses a lot because I wear regular glasses, but a hat helps. The strap is useful so you don’t have to tie up a hand keeping your hat on your head on windy days.
- good walking shoes (so much for “good” – the pair I bought two months ago has already ripped at one seam, and customer service hasn’t responded)
- reusable water bottle
Have questions? Tried car-free in a food desert yourself and have tips to share? Let me know in the comments.
Note: technically, according to the USDA’s food desert locator, my particular neighborhood is not a food desert, although we are right next to one. This may be because more people in my neighborhood have a car or have slightly higher incomes, parts of the equation for determining whether an area is considered a food desert. The nearest grocery, however, *is* more than a mile away, and I would consider my neighborhood to have serious problems of access to healthy food, especially without a car. We are one area that has been targeted in the past by local efforts to increase access to healthy foods. Effectively, a food desert.
PS-If you use the referral link to the right to sign up for ZipCar, available in most major cities, we can each get a $25 credit. I don’t have any financial relationship with the company except being a member/customer.
Added: there is some good discussion in the comments now about bicycles, which is something I didn’t address in the post because I haven’t acquired one yet and am not sure how well I would do on a bike.