Problem: Residents who need to get to a food pantry, but don’t have transportation.
Solution: Rutherford County, N.C. provides transportation to local food pantries for those who can’t get there on their own.
If there are food banks or food pantries for low-income residents in your county, but residents have no way of getting to them, what’s the solution?
Contact Giles at via email or call 828.288.4505
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food insecurity” as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members. In 2016, 12.3 percent of U.S. households were food insecure. One of the barriers to getting food is transportation.
Five years ago, a rural North Carolina county began helping its residents get to food pantries with a new transportation program that is still going strong today.
“We knew there was a need and transportation can oftentimes be a barrier,” said Kerry Giles, Rutherford County, N.C. Transportation Services director.
Churches and other organizations have provided food to local residents there for many years but had not considered that those with the greatest need may not have transportation to get to those resources.
The county’s free transportation service, available to all, was started after drivers for the county’s paratransit system discovered the need among their passengers. Giles stopped in at a local pantry to talk to the manager about setting up scheduled stops.
It wasn’t long before the department kicked off new routes with their vans, offering door-to-door service to get residents to the pantry.
One problem they had to overcome were long lines. “The pantry worked with us to kind of streamline it because the lines could get really long,” Giles said. “They had special loading and unloading zones.”
The county was able to work with the pantry to get the riders in and out quickly, so van drivers didn’t have to wait too long. “We pulled up, they helped us load up and we were able to leave pretty quick and leave with groceries for our residents,” she said.
By listening to their residents, the county went outside the scope of traditional public transportation and created a service that meets their customers’ needs.
Today, the transportation services department is also offering free rides to grocery stores and is also working on free rides to farmers markets.
The department offers grocery bags to residents and large tubs inside their vans to hold the food. Vans accommodate four passengers and four tubs, allowing the county to provide the food shuttle service to 20 families per week.
To get the word out, the county developed a rack card and flyers and placed them inside all transit vehicles and posted information on social media, Giles said.
The new shuttle service even spawned another service — helping get citizens to the laundromat. Transit now provides free transportation to residents to one of four laundromats.
The service is funded through the state Department of Transportation, contract services (Medicaid transportation, mainly) and non-profit grants, Giles said.
Her advice to other counties considering adding transportation services to food banks and pantries?
“I would say look at where the needs are and to make it most cost effective for you, look at the logistics of it,” she said. “We did it based on zones. You don’t want to run a van going back and forth across the county all day long or your costs are going to go through the roof. If you can, cut it to north and south or east and west. Look for other non-profit grants out there. There are grant opportunities out there to fund operational costs.” She shows grantors how their money is being spent by tracking costs per mile so it’s very quantitative, she said.
Feedback from residents and others is also a good idea. “We run surveys pretty regularly,” she said.
In addition to being practical, the service is revered by the community, Giles noted.
“I’ve worked in county government for 16 years now in a variety of different agencies within county government. The pantry service has had the biggest impact.”
“I can’t tell you the number of citizens who have come up to me, who don’t ride transit, but they have heard what we’re doing and say ‘We’re so pleased with what you’re doing. What a great use of government services, getting people to pantries.’ They ask if they can volunteer, if there’s anything they can do to support it,” she said.
“It’s a very visible service,” she noted. “There’s always disagreement on how government dollars should be spent but the pantry…not only does it serve an immediate need, but it has an immediate positive response from the community at large, which is really great to see, because you don’t always get that.”
Rutherford County Transit was recognized as a 2015 Harvard Ash Center Bright Idea in Government.