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Living Car-Free in a Food Desert

August 2, 2011

tomatoes in a box

CC BY-SA 2.0, dain of the iron hills

Until I started trying it myself, I honestly did not understand why food deserts are defined in such a short radius – surely people 1-2 miles from a grocery story, even without a car, can’t really have *that* hard a time getting to food, right?


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.

Helpful Gear:
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)
  • sunscreen
  • 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.

Join Zipcar and get $25 in free driving!
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.

36 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2011 2:18 pm

    I know what you mean about the bus schedules. I have taken public transportation in NYC, London, Paris, and Amsterdam all without issue…but Nashville and Memphis still baffle me.

  2. August 2, 2011 2:22 pm

    Rachel – I’m impressed with your perseverance. There is no way I would walk an hour back and forth between grocery store and home in the heat we have been experiencing in Nashville lately. It seems to me something more needs to be done in areas like your neighborhood (and mine in East Nashville) to increase access to fresh produce. I know a few programs that have been started in local schools in South Nash and of course there are little satellite Farmer’s Market’s popping up at Vanderbilt and other neighborhoods, but we could do better. Heck – why not start a farmer’s market in the Fair grounds?! I guess it takes time, perseverance, and people like yourself to make change. My congratulations to you for being a great example to us all.

    • August 2, 2011 2:27 pm

      I would *love* a farmers’ market at the fairgrounds, or that plus a grocery, even if it was one of the smaller “urban market” types. That’s one thing that has come up during community input sessions, and I would love it if it really happened. Good idea! And thanks for your comment!

  3. August 2, 2011 2:25 pm

    Thanks for posting this! It’s easy to take for granted having a car in a city built for people with cars. It didn’t occur to me until recently how ludicrous it was for me to drive my dogs to place where I could safely walk them.

    • August 2, 2011 2:28 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Jen. It really does change your whole way of looking at getting around and buying things. We need Polly’s suggestion – a market at the fairgrounds – to happen!

  4. August 2, 2011 2:27 pm

    Very interesting Rachel.

  5. August 2, 2011 2:47 pm

    Really nice post. A suggestion/option to those who can’t have a car is to (if possible) acquire a bike. While I do have a car and use it when weather is wet, too cold, or too oppressive (although I’ve been biking in this 100+ heat index weather), I try to ride my bike as much as I can, especially for commuting to and from work. I have a pannier, the bag that goes over the back tire, and I take my work clothes, lunch, purse, etc. in it. I’ve recently seen people rigging up old kitty litter plastic crates as panniers, which is a cheap way to get more luggage space. I’ve done groceries in the bag, too, but you quickly learn how much you can (or can’t) fit in those bags. 🙂

    Good luck, stay safe, and thanks for this interesting post!

    • August 2, 2011 2:56 pm

      Beth, that’s a good suggestion, and something I haven’t done yet, which is why I didn’t really address it in the post. It’s definitely an important option, though. I honestly don’t feel too comfortable with my bike-riding skills – didn’t ride much as a kid, never learned to ride a bike that requires shifting gears or using hand brakes, and bike lanes are pretty spotty around here. I might consider it, though, so I welcome any suggestions about choosing a bicycle! There is a fair bit of hilliness between my house and work, so I wonder if I would need to learn to ride a bike that requires shifting gears? Thanks for commenting!

      • Rivikah permalink
        August 2, 2011 4:50 pm

        Gears help, but they’re never required. Hand breaks are pretty much standard on adult bikes, so you’ll definitely want to learn to use those, but even if you end up with a bike that has gears, you can always just put it in a gear that works for you and leave it there.

        As for advice on getting a bike, I’d suggest going to a decently stocked bike shop, talking to the staff, and taking at least half a dozen different things for test drives. The way different types of bikes can feel to ride is much much different and you want to get something that’s comfortable for you.

        Lots of beginners prefer either a “mountain” style bike, or one of those old-fashioned looking “cruiser” types. But Hybrid or Comfort bikes would also be a good choice. There’s a good summary of types here:

      • August 2, 2011 7:39 pm

        Thank you, Rivikah, that is extremely helpful!

      • August 3, 2011 10:28 am

        It’s interesting to read your thoughts on being car-free in Nashville. Couldn’t agree more about the bus thing — I find them SO confusing here and like Lesley I have navigated public transportation with ease in a lot of other cities. Re: bikes, I have a single-speed bike with coaster brakes that I ride all around Nashville. I don’t think that I ride it any slower than my 10-speed although I feel slightly more tired at the end of a long ride. I think it requires a bit more effort. Still, the simplicity of braking, etc., makes up for it. I go on rides in the neighborhood all the time — with friends and alone — so if you get a bike and want to get some experience feel free to drop me a line!

      • August 3, 2011 10:29 am

        I would recommend a bike with gears, especially if it’s kind of hilly where you are. That being said, the first thing would be to try out bikes (as suggested by Rivikah) and start getting a feeling for riding a bike and if you would be comfortable enough to do it. I got my bike at a local bike shop (not Walmart), which was more expensive, but I wanted something that would last. It’s a hybrid bike, so not skinny road bike tires or really knotty mountain bike tires, but in between. I ride in a bike lane, a small hill, a sidewalk across a bridge which often has broken glass, a biking/walking path, and on sidewalks (even though I’m technically supposed to be in the road). Also absolutely recommend getting a helmet if you’re riding anywhere than up and down your street. 🙂

      • August 3, 2011 11:09 am

        Thanks, Trisha, I appreciate it and may take you up on that. Beth, thanks for sharing your knowledge, and the helmet reminder. I’m old enough that we didn’t wear helmets to ride bikes as kids, but if I commuted on one it would be down city streets and past the interstate off-ramps, so one would definitely be called for.

  6. August 2, 2011 3:06 pm

    The hot weather always did us in with respect to taking public transit & biking around here. I’m impressed by your perseverance. I’m curious, do you have an estimate of how much extra time living in a food desert is costing you? Example: if you had a car, it would take you x amount of time in a day/week to get food VS taking public transit and the other really interesting approaches you’ve come up with, it takes y amount of time. It seems logical that the more time it takes to gather ingredients, the less time there is to prepare food, leading to more use of convenience options – but I wonder if there’s research on that?

    • August 2, 2011 3:46 pm

      I haven’t tried to fully come up with a time estimate or looked at any research on that, but it’s an interesting question. I’d agree that we do use more convenience options – in part because they are sometimes more shelf/fridge/freezer-stable, and more readily obtained at smaller markets. Luckily (?), we don’t have a microwave, so that pushes us back the other direction. There are also days when I get home too hot to be hungry, and just go for cereal or a sandwich or something.

      I think I was lucky (??) when I first started this, in that our a/c at home went out, too. After walking in 90+ degree heat and coming home to an ~88 degree house, just the heat of walking (and being able to cool off at home now that the a/c is fixed) is more bearable.

  7. August 3, 2011 4:45 pm

    You might also want to consider talking to the nearest grocery about having regular delivery service. Especially if you have a committee of neighbors or (best of all) a neighborhood association that will take this on. Before I moved to Nashville, I lived about half a mile or so from my favorite grocery, and was carless. I generally used a fold-up shopping cart (they are awesome, and study — I have even moved furniture using them) and walked there and back, about once a week. It took me about 10 minutes to get there, about 20 to get back loaded up. (I walk about an 18-minute mile, when not burdened with carts and such.) BUT for an extra dollar, the grocery would deliver the food! So if it was hot, or had started to rain, or I was especially tired, I was off the hook. This was a standard service, b/c so many people there didn’t have cars. It’s why getting a group of people to ask for the service is helpful; that way they know it would really be used.

    • August 3, 2011 5:42 pm

      I never would have thought of that, nm, thanks for the suggestion!

  8. jcwallace permalink
    August 4, 2011 11:03 am

    Love your post! I haven’t had a car in over 10 years! And I live in the same position as you (in the South, poor public transportation, graduate, etc.). I have chosen to move to 2 miles away from a large area with food and groceries FINALLY but people don’t realize how hard it can be or the options available to get around- like zipcars. I choose my lifestyle but so many people do not. For many, the only food available is fast food or very limited grocery stores that lack a variety of fresh produce. Looking forward to more posts!

    • August 4, 2011 4:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment. Your absolutely right that making a deliberate choice, if able, is huge. When I was house-shopping, one of my criteria for the realtor was that I needed to be able to walk to work if I had/wanted to.

  9. Alger permalink
    August 4, 2011 3:44 pm

    As someone who has both worked manual minimum wage labor for a few decades and then got a PhD so I could work for even less money, I just want to point out (in the kindest way possible) that having a graduate degree in no way indicates intelligence, ability, or anything other than tenacity and an ability to organize a committee into the same room twice in a few years.
    It’s just a tad…demeaning/patronizing to suggest your degree should give you an edge over the less-educated poor folk when it comes to reading a bus schedule.
    I winced when I read that because I know you didn’t mean to patronize.
    Otherwise, I agree completely with everything you observe. If you didn’t know, there is a movement on among urbanists to change zoning in many large cities to allow the return of the corner store to remedy just this problem.

    • August 4, 2011 4:43 pm

      Alger, you’re correct that I did not intend to be patronizing. and I’m sorry that I wrote it in a way that could be read that way. I meant simply that I am a comfortably literate person, one who typically does not have trouble with complex instructions, texts, or information, and yet I find the bus schedules here to be puzzling at times. The graduate degree information was meant to indicate this about myself, rather than to indicate that people without such a degree would necessarily have trouble. I believe that if I had difficulty reading English, either as a second language or because of low literacy skills, it would likely be even more difficult to navigate this system. Also, as a first generation college student, I think I do tend to look at higher education as something giving me an edge in many areas, whether that is always accurate or not.

      I’m not up on the zoning issues, but thanks for mentioning that.

  10. August 5, 2011 9:15 pm

    Very interesting read Rachel. We live in a food desert too and many of our neighbors rely on local “markets” with few options and those that are, certainly do not provide the most healthy choices. So much more could be done and you know that husband of mine is trying to figure out how to make a dent. :-0

    • August 6, 2011 12:04 pm

      Let me know when he figures it out and we will follow his example! 😉

  11. August 7, 2011 2:19 am

    glad that i live in Asia … even though the modernization is still far from perfect , but for market and transportation is A okay.. easy to find… 🙂

  12. August 7, 2011 9:57 am

    I employ different strategies. Luckily we have a fairly decent transit system here though that could change soon because their revenue stream includes money from the gasoline tax and people are driving less and using the transit service more. You can see where that goes.

    Did think of one way, start snatching part of the gross receipts tax for electric, gas and phone services. That doesn’t tend to go down.

    But the nearest grocery store is .8 miles from here. And I work .4 miles from a Wal-Mart, and .6 miles from a Stop & Shop store. And my favorite, we have a meat market less than a quarter mile away. Entirely walkable.

    I have a bus bas, and a zipcar account for the more far flung things like Trader Joe’s.

    And what is the metropolis I speak of, none but Providence, Rhode Island.

  13. Wanderer permalink
    October 17, 2011 6:42 pm

    Rachel, I happened upon this good posting. Fortunately, my household has always been able to plan around being close to a supermarket when we moved, it’s been a primary consideration.

    I work in transit in a city far from Nashville. I’m curious about what you find to be so confusing about the bus schedules. At least in their on-line versions, they look pretty standard. It’s definitely unfortunate–and confusing–when some lines don’t run on the weekend. What other confusing elements are there?

    • October 17, 2011 7:10 pm

      It’s hard for me to explain, exactly. I think part of it is the sometimes irregularity in actual practice, which makes me think I’ve just interpreted the schedules wrong. There are the weekend changes, and some changes during the day. I also have a horrible sense of direction – as in, if I pulled a car into a gas station to fill up, it would take me a minute to figure out which way to go when leaving. I think that may contribute. I’m pretty good with maps, but sometimes have a hard time getting the bus routes. I’ve also found that they have two different “trip planner” tools that will sometimes give different results. Which is all to say, I don’t know why it’s hard for me, but it is – and for whatever reason, I’ve found it easier in other cities. I had no trouble figuring out routes on a recent trip to Boston.


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