Baltimore and Lyft Partner to Bridge Urban Food Deserts

Two pilot projects in Baltimore will provide $2.50 flat-rate rides to qualifying residents traveling to area grocery stores. Food deserts are a substantial barrier to healthy living in low-income communities.

by / December 17, 2019
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Many residents in Baltimore low-income areas suffer from inadequate access to healthy food options, but a new partnership between the city and rideshare company Lyft could soon change that dynamic.

The city has formed a partnership with the ride-hailing company and community groups to launch a pilot project in Baltimore in two parts of the city known for having poor access to quality grocery stores — areas known as “food deserts.” The six-month pilots in South and West Baltimore will provide eight rides a month to area grocery stores for 200 qualifying residents until April 30, 2020. The rides can be accessed via the Lyft app and will cost a flat rate of $2.50 each.

The goal is “to put the money back in the pocket of residents to go buy healthy food,” said Holly Freishtat, food policy director in Baltimore, which heads up the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative.

“If we can reduce the cost of transportation, so they’re not taking a cab, that’s more money to spend at the grocery store,” she added.

In 2018 some 23.5 percent of Baltimore residents live in a Healthy Food Priority Area, which comes to about 146,000 people, according to a report by the city. Baltimore has an eight-point healthy food plan, which includes a focus on transportation strategy.

“We understand we want to get grocery stores in areas where we can, but we also understand that we need to get food to people, and people to food,” Freishtat explained. “The second part is how to do we get people to the grocery stores. That is where we’ve been looking at a multi-tiered strategy. Lyft, and this ride-share pilot, is one component to it, but that’s not exclusively the strategy.”

Access to transportation — to get to a grocery store, a doctor’s appointment, a job — are perennial concerns for low-income residents. And cities have turned to obvious partners like public transit agencies help provide better and improved service, but also to private-sector partners for help in closing these access gaps.

“Healthy food access is a complex problem, often with no single simple solution, as the geography of each neighborhood has a unique effect on their ability to support local grocery stores as well as public transportation options to nearby stores,” said Chris Firehock, project manager at the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, a partner in the Grocery Access Program, in an email. “This requires a multifaceted approach to reduce barriers of access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. As technology rapidly evolves, it is critical to evaluate how new transportation options can play a role.”

Lyft is a partner in similar grocery access programs in 16 markets around the country, including Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York, Miami, Portland, Ore., and others, said Miguel Bagsit, a public relations spokesperson for Lyft.

The West Baltimore project site has space for 100 participants, which is now full, said Firehock. The South Baltimore project is nearly full with about 92 participants so far.

“It’s showing a lot of popularity,” Freishtat said. “But that’s the sign-up. Now we have to see if people are using it."

“We are giving [residents] the opportunity to go once a week. But are they really using it once a week? What’s their need?” she added, ticking some of the many questions the pilot aims to explore.

The city intends to use the pilots as an opportunity to study shopping behavior and how improved access to a grocery store may affect healthy eating outcomes.

“There’s lots of research questions we need to find out from this pilot,” said Freishtat. “So there’s a lot of questions, and there’s a lot of things we want to learn, as far as what is the best way to support residents, and having not only access, but able to afford healthy foods.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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