The Grocery Bag Challenge

In 2015, the American Heart Association in Hampton Roads, Virginia added a new dimension to its annual 5k Heart Walk by inviting participants to take the Grocery Bag Challenge. Participants carried an eight-pound grocery bag for one mile of the walk to raise awareness of the difficulty faced by people without convenient transportation or grocery stores close to home. Participants reported that it was much harder than they expected! But the Grocery Bag Challenge was, in some ways, much easier than reality. Too often, people walking home with their groceries do so without sidewalks or other street features that keep them safe from traffic violence, and must walk with kids in tow, and certainly with more than one grocery bag at a time. For example, in Des Moines, Iowa, refugees must walk several miles roundtrip along the highway with no sidewalk in order to get to the grocery store. From Hampton Roads, Virginia, to Des Moines, Iowa, and in communities all across the country, people are forced to put themselves at risk in order to get to the grocery store. In fact, close to 20 percent of people in the United States experience significant transportation barriers to accessing healthy foods. This is unsafe and unacceptable. Efforts known as Safe Routes to Healthy Food are emerging in communities across the country to overcome the transportation barriers that people face people face when trying to access a grocery store (or other place that they get food) on foot, on bike, and on public transportation. By raising awareness through events like the Grocery Bag Challenge and pairing them with policy solutions that link transportation and food access strategies, cities are making strides toward improving health and safety for their residents.

Are you interested in hosting a Grocery Bag Challenge? The Grocery Bag Challenge is a terrific way to raise awareness of the need for grocery stores close to home and increase advocacy efforts for improving conditions for people walking. Does your community have a fun run or walk coming up? If so, invite interested participants to carry bags of groceries over a mile while addressing a series of questions on signs along the route. Possible questions include:

  • How many bags of groceries would you need to feed your family for one week?
  • How many days could you feed your family only purchasing what you can carry?
  • How would your life be different if you did not have vehicle access to purchase groceries?
  • What barriers might you face if you could only rely on biking, walking or public transportation to purchase groceries?
  • What would make it safer and more convenient for you to walk, bike or take public transit to where you purchase food?

Once you’ve raised awareness, it’s important to do something about it. Community advocates and health-focused organizations can promote Safe Routes to Healthy Food and ensure that people without vehicles can access nutritious foods by working with local governments, public transit agencies, and others to improve connectivity to grocery stores. For additional inspiration on how to take action, we look to exemplary communities that that actively plan for the needs of people who rely on walking to get to the grocery store.

For example, Siler City, North Carolina (population 7,887), is a predominantly Latino community where the per capita income is less than half that of the surrounding county. The town worked together with the Chatham County Health Department to incorporate healthy food access into its Pedestrian Master Plan. The Health Department conducted a nutrition environment analysis of food retailers in Siler City, and the town’s Pedestrian Master Plan prioritized sidewalk and pedestrian improvements that connect residential areas with venues selling healthy food options. In a recent round of transportation funding, three of the recommended projects from the Pedestrian Master Plan received funding from the state department of transportation.

In South Carolina, the Department of Health and Environmental Control is working with 16 communities to develop Pedestrian Master Plans that focus on equity-based planning, community engagement, and safe pedestrian access to healthy foods. These plans are developed with input from residents who are most affected by poor food access and transportation challenges, and they use that community feedback to identify and prioritize solutions for improving walkable access to healthy foods.

As the participants in the Hampton Roads, VA Heart Walk experienced, walking with grocery bags is hard enough on a road closed to traffic. There’s a need to improve safety and convenience for people who live that reality week in and week out. These examples from Siler City, NC and South Carolina show that it is possible to make it easier and safer for people who walk to get to the grocery store. By working in partnership, everyday residents, health-focused organizations, healthy food access advocates, bicycle and pedestrian advocates, hunger advocates, and local governments can make a big difference in the lives of people who walk to the grocery store. For additional ideas of policies and practices to improve Safe Routes to Healthy Food, visit the Safe Routes to School National Partnership website: https://www.saferoutespartnership.org/resources/publications/healthy-food.