Typically, the concerns of Providence's East Side college students and inner city immigrant families do not intersect. When it comes to making a city livable, however, one thing that unites urbanites from diverse neighborhoods is a desire for fresh produce.
Driving to a suburban grocery store or timing a trip to a local farmers' market is not always convenient for college students and low-income Providence area residents, or even possible for the many who do not own cars. Food deserts (not desserts) – geographic areas with limited access to fresh, nutritious or locally-sourced foods – are common to both downtown and low-income neighborhoods.
A group of RISD students and the non-profit Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island (a CTC member organization) have come up with two very different, creative solutions to the problem of food deserts. By taking a second look at existing Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus routes, both discovered that public transportation can play a key role in solving the food problem common to many neighborhoods.
Providence Healthy Corner Store Initiative
Targeting corner stores on busy thoroughfares with regular bus service through its "Healthy Corner Store Initiative," the Environmental Justice League transformed the food choices available to shoppers at three, small, busy markets. With volunteer help, the stores changed product inventory, re-merchandised grocery displays and created new signage -- all for the sake of bringing fresh and local produce, healthy snack options, whole grain breads, and 100% juice to markets serving immigrant neighborhoods.
This year's Better World by Design conference, run by students at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), partnered with the City of Providence to feature a contest to address the challenge of "food deserts" faced by modern cities.
"Grocery Loop," a winning idea of the national competition, is the brainchild of three RISD graduate students. The idea, which has won a RISD Student Graduate Grant, grew out of the limited choices of grocery shopping on existing linear RIPTA bus routes and takes an adaptive reuse approach to public transit. Imagine low-emissions, brightly colored "Grocery Loop" buses that provide continuous loop service from clearly marked bus shelters to popular, quality grocery stores, farmers markets and ethnic food shops. Riders, using interactive, mobile social networking applications and bus GPS tracking information, will know exactly when and where they are going. Using rider feedback, the Grocery Loop can evolve with new routes, allow for recipe swaps and other rider generated web and mobile device applications.
The more than 30,000 Providence residents, who live more than one mile from an adequate grocery store, can begin greening up their food desert by hopping a linear RIPTA ride to markets responding to the Providence Healthy Corner Store Initiative. With more time and effort, connecting with the RISD grads may make the Grocery Loop a reality.
The Coalition for Transportation Choices (CTC) calls for a 21st century transportation system that enhances our economy and provides all Rhode Islanders with healthy transportation choices. AARP RI is a member of the coalition consisting of more than 40 agencies.
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