The Town decreased bus capacity when COVID-19 hit Chapel Hill — lowering the risk of virus spread, but complicating a landscape where residents already struggled to find transportation for grocery shopping and raised questions about housing and food insecurity.
Healthy People 2020, a set of objectives launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, describes food insecurity as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns due to lack of money and other resources. A lack of transportation or access to stores can contribute to food insecurity, as can income and disability.
Alice Ammerman, professor of nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of UNC’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, emphasized the impact that a lack of food accessibility can have on health outcomes.
“Almost all the chronic diseases — cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension — they all have a very strong nutrition and food component,” Ammerman said. “It contributes a high proportion to the risk of chronic long-term disease, to have a poor diet.”
An analysis of Chapel Hill’s grocery stores, public housing developments and private apartment complexes found that most stores in Chapel Hill are located within half a mile of a private apartment complex where rent can exceed $900. Grocery stores also tend to be situated in more affluent income tracts.
On the other hand, public housing developments are located farther away from stores, often requiring a round trip of more than one mile to reach the nearest major grocery store. On average, public housing developments are about one mile from the nearest grocery store, while luxury apartments with rent greater than $900 per month are less than 0.4 miles away.
Residents without cars could have to brave a long walk through Chapel Hill’s hot summers and cold winters to get to and from the store while carrying bags of groceries — or ride the bus.
Limited bus routes, limited access
But COVID-19 has limited the availability of Chapel Hill’s public transit. In March, the Town pared down its normal bus routes until only Saturday level services, which provide a more limited range of pickup and drop-off points, were left.
Starting June 1, some weekday routes were added back to the bus schedule, but capacity was limited to 10 people. Currently, between 16 and 21 passengers can board a single bus. But bus lines such as the T, which services apartment developments along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., are still not running.
Chapel Hill Transit Director Brian Litchfield said the mid-March decision to decrease public transit capacity was difficult but necessary, given guidance from public health officials. He said Chapel Hill Transit has provided alternatives to buses, such as its EZ Rider service for individuals with disabilities, and has ramped services back up to 80 percent of their original capacity since August.
“We’re a transit system,” Litchfield said. “For us to think about reducing service, and telling people not to ride the bus? Not only is that a very difficult decision, it’s also the very opposite of what we do.”
For the refugee families that Meagan Clawar, program manager for the Refugee Community Partnership, works with, the decrease in public transportation capacity has impacted their access to not only food, but jobs and doctor’s appointments, piling stress on for many families whose members may have lost their jobs or are essential workers while putting them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
“We've definitely had families who have called us, just really upset and really overwhelmed to try to figure out, like, 'Okay, I'm in quarantine and I also don't have a job because of the quarantine, and I'm unable to access food, and I'm just really stressed and scared about what's going to happen for my family and for my kids,” she said.
Even before COVID-19 hit, Clawar said getting transportation to grocery stores was difficult within Chapel Hill — and even more so for stores like Li Ming’s Global Mart and Compare Foods in Durham, which sell foods that she said refugee families might prefer.
“Most of our families live in (public housing) and often have difficulty getting to the store because a lot of families don't have their own cars,” she said. “And it can be really difficult to navigate the busing system.”
Litchfield said while Chapel Hill Transit is always working to improve its services to the Chapel Hill community, the addition of new bus stops and routes can be hindered by high costs — and sidewalks. He said it's hard to improve bus stops while making them accessible as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Students living on South Campus, like first-year English and comparative literature major Savannah Worrell, have also experienced challenges finding food while taking safety measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
“Instead of having the ability to make one big grocery trip, we’re having to make either multiple trips to the Target on Franklin Street or multiple daily trips to Chase Dining Hall," Worrell said.
Senior computer science major Charlie Helms lived in Ram Village 5, one of the southernmost student housing buildings on UNC’s campus, when he was a junior. He said buying groceries last year was a struggle, because the closest grocery store, Target, couldn’t match the prices or options offered at larger stores that were further away.
“If I want to go grocery shopping, I would get my friends to take me because that way, I wouldn't have to basically spend 30-ish minutes waiting for the bus, to go get the car, to go grocery shopping,” he said.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Refugee Community Partnership and other organizations have been working to increase the accessibility of food in Chapel Hill.
To help improve food access for families whose children may have depended on the free or reduced lunch offered by schools before the pandemic, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools District began distributing food through its Food For Students program in March. The program drops off meals at dozens of locations around the district, often near public housing communities.
Clawar said Refugee Community Partnership and other organizations, such as PORCH and Food Not Bombs, have been working together to provide gift cards and drop off groceries for families through community-based delivery models.
Online grocery delivery and ordering apps seem unviable for the families she works with due to technological, language and delivery fee barriers, she said.
“Navigating an app, making the order for either curbside pickup or delivery into your home, wouldn't necessarily be something accessible to our families,” she said. “So I think that when stores switch over to those models, it actually makes it a little bit more difficult for the families that we work with.”
Ammerman said research has shown that while proximity to grocery stores is important, getting people access to healthy food through methods such as farmers markets is an area that needs improvement.
Looking beyond the immediate crises caused by the pandemic, Clawar hopes that Chapel Hill residents will support local businesses and food shops, while also thinking about how the Town can improve the bus system for all.
“Because the bus system in Chapel Hill caters so heavily to the University, it's often very inconvenient and difficult for families to even bus back to their homes from their employment at UNC,” she said. “That’s always something that I would push for: taking a look at the busing roots and making them work better for the community outside of just the University.”
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