A Hy-Vee store in Ottumwa, Iowa, is improving food access in two counties by providing free shuttle transportation to shoppers who live up to 40 miles away.
The service, which is funded by Hy-Vee, is part of that store’s involvement in a consortium of local businesses and non-profits led by the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation to bring together siloed efforts that address food deserts and food insecurity in Wapello County, Iowa. At 14.2% the 35,000-resident county has the second highest food insecurity rate in the state.
Through interviews with community members and data analysis, consortium members learned that a lack of transportation in area food deserts is so hindering that it prevents SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children program) recipients from expending all of their benefits each month, Amber Payne, consultant and coordinator for Growing Wapello Together, told SN.
“That’s their purchasing power and they’re not even able to use it,” she said.
Even when community members in food deserts are able to access public transportation — which stops running at 5 p.m. on weekdays and doesn’t run at all on the weekends — the bus system limits the number of bags riders are permitted to travel with. Compounding the issue is the fact that benefit recipients often have small children in tow and the winters are especially harsh.
Hy-Vee’s shuttle service, which picks up and drops off groups and individual shoppers from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every Friday, is helping scale many of these hurdles.
“They can take as many bags as they’d like, they can ride after 5p.m. and take as much time at the grocery stores as they want,” noted Ina Cavin, store director at the North Ottumwa Hy-vee. “It’s not like they’re going to miss their ride.”
Shoppers can call ahead to schedule a pick-up or do so on the day of. Fridays were chosen since that is when many residents get paid, and the local community college, which educates a lot of international students, does not hold classes.
In recent weeks there have been as many as 85 passengers on shuttle days, but Carter expects that number to grow now that it’s distributing Spanish-language flyers about the service, and has enlisted a Spanish-speaking dispatcher to set up rides. Direct mail flyers will be sent to homes in particularly high-risk areas to notify residents of the free service.