How Will CoVID-19 Affect Transit Trips to Get Processed Food? by Jonathan Katz

People will travel long distances to get their favorite processed foods, if it is not at the corner store near them – something that is especially the case if the food is from another country, or not affordable near them. In the United States, most people drive to purchase these foods, but in many cities, people will take public transportation. These trips are quite common in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and where I currently live in Greater Washington. I have even done these trips on the bus myself many times, to bring back food products as mundane as canned sardines and as exotic as my favorite brand of chutney from my father’s home country of South Africa. As a graduate student in urban planning, I have considered, for a while, some more sustained research on these practices.

Once again Jonathan Katz honors us with his unique perspective. Previous posts he has contributed to this site have described the importance of ready-made foods for disabled people who live alone and why immigrant families can trust the supermarket to provide ingredients as they prepare traditional meals. This time he provides insights on navigating neighborhoods to get special processed products in the midst of a pandemic.

Then coronavirus happened. Among the many changes that have occurred are reductions in transit service and reductions in grocery store hours. Here in the region around Washington DC, bus and train schedules are on “lifeline” service on the weekends, and many grocery stores have significantly shortened their hours. Similar patterns abound across the United States. These cuts are expected to last for many months, due to reduced demand, even after places “reopen.”

The effect is not evenly distributed. People have different levels of access to grocery stores, which is tied to different levels of transportation access, which correlates with race, class, and gender quite closely. As a result, many people who would have previously taken a transit trip to get their processed foods, on which they may rely, find themselves affected – and perhaps having to make some changes. What might they be?

I will look at three potential trends: first, that marginalized people will be more affected; second, that it will change what specific foods people buy, and how often; third, that there will be a shift to longer-lasting processed foods. I will go through each in turn.

First: people who are already marginalized will be most affected, as they are more likely to rely on transit to get to and from the grocery store. People of color, immigrants, lower-income people, women, people with disabilities, and older adults all disproportionately rely on public transportation to fulfill daily needs. With transit cuts, it means that members of these populations will all face new or heightened hurdles to get to grocery stores. As a result, people may end up changing what they buy and how often.

While these changes have often been framed in terms of the risk of going grocery shopping, I want to note here that there is also the question of difficulty: the calculus of grocery shopping changes if it takes an hour and a half, rather than half an hour, to get to the store. One can already see this difference in travel patterns when one compares pre-pandemic activities in areas with and without strong bus networks. Of course, there are other geographic barriers too: in a piece I wrote last month on disability and cooking in this time, I discussed the impact inaccessible sidewalks and inaccessible supermarkets can have on people with disabilities and older people. While we talk about the actual consumption of processed foods, these factors influence if food shopping even happens, what processed foods are bought, and how often.

People may also choose to buy different foods. If transit trips take longer, highly perishable foods – especially in hot climates – may not be purchased as often, even if the trip would have probably been fine. Such foods include some dairy and meat products, as well as prepared foods, most of which count as “processed” in some form. More durable processed foods may take their place – especially if they are easily purchased and transported in large quantities without a car. Secondly, some people may not be able to purchased processed foods from a home culture or that are tailored to specific dietary needs or preferences as easily. Often, immigrants and their children travel long distances, including by transit, to get a sauce or vinegar or foodstuff from the motherland. Beyond questions of safety, purchasing that product will also be more difficult with changes to transit.

Jewish processed food photo by Jonathan Katz
Seeking out Israeli food products in New York in 2018. Photo by Jonathan Katz.

As a personal example, I have not purchased certain Israeli food products that I normally use most days, like avkat marak, since March. The nearest store that still has it in stock is no longer reachable by public transit on the weekend. I do not have a car and have quite a bit of work to do Monday through Friday. I have heard similar stories from Thai friends missing certain herbs, Russian friends missing certain pickles, and West African friends who miss fufu. While we are still eating well, the lack of this food is another sad part of quarantine – and has shifted us to substitutes, be they Knorr stock cubes for me, Western herbs for a Thai friend, or grits for a Ghanaian friends. Of course, immigrants have done this kind of “fusion” substitution for centuries.

If getting to the grocery stores is difficult on transit, some people will also go less often. As a result, processed foods may be purchased less often – which could impact what people end up “stocking up” on. We saw a societal-level example of this trend in March and April with the hoarding of flour, pasta, and beans. On a different scale, an example from a transit user might be buying comparatively light TVP instead of delicious and cheap – but heavy – canned beans, stock powder or cubes instead of canned stock, and perhaps plenty of “ultra-processed” foods for last-minute cravings. I suspect that some of these changes may have to do with the combination of less transit and more planning: transit users cannot stop at the grocery store on the way home, as is common in New York, if they are not chaining the trip onto a commute. So, grocery runs also take more dedicated time to plan and do.

I am sure there are other trends that I have missed; perhaps, too, we may see different results. There are two things I want to end with. First is that discussions of planning and food often center around “food deserts” or the availability of “fresh foods”; however, some issues go well beyond that question. For many people, processed foods are a key part of their cultural diet, or needed for them to cook or live independently at all. Some of these foods have traditions dating back centuries or millennia. I think that, as planners, we need to remember that these foods also matter when we discuss access – and especially the relationship between transit and grocery use. The second is that as we consider processed food, we need to consider travel and transit in terms of how available that food is. I look forward to more discussion on this topic.

Next week: The Way We Eat Now: Strategies for Eating in a World of Change


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