Key Takeaways

  • The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted troubling gaps in transportation access, especially in rural areas.

  • Many rural and tribal transit agencies have found creative ways to bridge transportation gaps for providing healthy foods to older adults and people with disabilities. 

  • Long after COVID-19, the issue of delivering food to people not just delivering people to food will continue to be an important transit role.

Millions of rural and tribal citizens are unable to drive for health, economic or lifestyle reasons, and the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted troubling gaps in transportation access.  Improved transit is a real solution to maintaining a high quality of life and healthy living in rural areas—providing access to grocery stores, food banks, farmer’s markets, and other sources of nutritious meals.

Througout the pandemic, the National Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP) has been reaching out to our stakeholders by using written documents, webinars, and peer roundtables. What we have found is that many rural and tribal transit agencies saw a need to expand their services during the early months of the pandemic to bridge the gap for providing healthy foods to those in lockdown, older adults, and people with disabilities. 

Here are some of the ways transit “stepped up to the table:”

  • Big Woods Transit in Minnesota: bus wheelchair lifts to load boxes to take to public food shelves for food-compromised community members and packaged food boxes to take to people’s houses.
  • Nevada County Connects: engaging community partners to deploy drivers to deliver meals to community members.
  • California RTAP (CALACT): developing messaging for transit drivers, such as “Can we bring meals to you?”
  • Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency (HIRTA) Public Transit: providing food and meal deliveries to those unable to leave their homes.
  • Crawford Area Transportation Authority (CATA), Pennsylvania: using paratransit vehicles to provide round-trips for seniors to pick up meals.
  • People Mover, Oregon: providing trips to and from food banks and grocery stores. At the food bank, the driver loads up the bus with food and then delivers it to people.
  • Red Lake Nation: has a “Meals on Wheels” tribal program that will deliver food to the homebound.
  • Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians: vehicles not in use repurposed to deliver food to an expanded service area.

During the first year of the pandemic, many agencies added grocery pickup and drop-off and free rides to anyone who needs to pick up food to their list of services. Transit drivers also delivered meals to students during the early-lockdown time of online distance-learning.

Building on lessons learned in improving food access

As society recovers from the pandemic, many transit agencies are choosing to continue their food programs as they realized such programs were filling a real need in areas where it is often difficult for community members to access healthy food. Long after COVID-19, the issue of delivering food to people not just delivering people to food will continue to be an important transit role.

Finally, providing training on access to healthy food through public transportation has been a priority of ours long before COVID-19.  A webinar we held in 2015 from our 101 Webinar Series “Rides to Wellness—Creating Healthy Communities” spotlighted several federal initiatives designed to do just that, such as a Food and Nutrition Service Summer Meals Program, that connects transportation resources and mobility management practices to summer meal sites. 

A new funding program National RTAP offered in 2021 is the Community Rides Grant program.  This program offers current recipients and sub-recipients of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA)'s Formula Grants for Rural Areas (Section 5311) and Tribal Transit Program  (Section 5311(c)(1)(B)) the opportunity to apply for grant awards of up to $100,000 for projects that develop or strengthen transportation partnerships that improve social determinants of health in rural and tribal communities.

The projects improve access to critical needs like healthy food access, as well as build the capacity of transit programs. The results of the completed projects will be shared nationally as promising practices. One of the grantees is the Bolivar County Council on Aging, Inc., (BCCOA) in Mississippi, which was awarded $100,000 to begin a microtransit service to access grocery stores and a food delivery service in an area with high poverty and limited access to healthy food. Collaborators include a rural transit technology company, university, various grocery stores, and a local nonprofit organization. This funding enabled BCCOA Transportation and Health Destination Access to launch a successful initiative dedicated to improving access to healthy food across the Mississippi Delta region.

Share your ideas with us

The National Rural Grocery Summit this past June sparked countless innovative ideas about how stakeholders in the rural grocery sector can partner with other organizations to improve food access in rural areas. If your organization is coordinating food access with rural or tribal public transportation in any way, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at