DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — On a steep hillside in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood, a bus called the Grocery Express pulled up to a curbside.
Carol Perkins climbed aboard with her granddaughter, Deziray, for the three-and-a-half-mile trip to the grocery store. She told the precocious 5-year-old that today, they were shopping for healthy food.
"We're not getting junk food," she said. "We'll get some apples, string cheese..."
The bus is outfitted with customized shelves and bins to carry shoppers' groceries. It will run every Tuesday during a four-month pilot project, connecting residents of two western Duluth neighborhoods to the closest full-service grocery store, Minnesota Public Radio News (http://bit.ly/1Q9z7T2 ) reported.
Pam Kramer directs the Duluth Local Initiatives Support Coalition. It's one of several groups that has spent the last three years trying to bring healthy eating options to neighborhoods in what are known as "food deserts" — areas without a full-service grocery store. Organizers have also helped launch a farmers market and plant community gardens.
She said residents report two major barriers to buying groceries.
"One was not being able to carry enough food," she said. "You can only put it on your lap, on a regular bus. This is a special bus that will allow you to put bags in bins, have some more room to bring more groceries aboard."
Second, the regular bus route doesn't stop directly at the store.
"So people had to walk even further," she said. "As a result, it's very difficult for people to get an adequate amount of food."
The Grocery Express is part of a growing effort in Minnesota and across the country to connect low-income people with healthy, affordable food.
Earlier this year in the Twin Cities, a mobile market began bringing a grocery store directly to neighborhoods inside a retrofitted Metro Transit bus.
But those programs can be expensive. The Twin Cities bus is expected to cost up to $200,000 a year. A similar effort in Chicago stalled because of a lack of funding.
The Duluth Transit Authority says the Duluth Express will cost about $20,000 to operate for four months. That's partly offset by fares of 75 cents (during off-peak hours) or $1.50 (during peak hours). Officials said the investment is minimal — just a driver and a bus, one day a week, to take shoppers to a Super One grocery store.
Of course, shoppers like Carol Perkins and her granddaughter still have to carry their groceries from the bus stop back to their homes. So buying a watermelon, for example, is "a little bit of a stretch," she said.
That was an issue the transit authority in Flint, Michigan, faced when it launched its "Rides to Groceries" bus route in April, after two stores had closed in low-income neighborhoods. Ed Benning, who directs the program there, said the bus will now pick shoppers up directly at their homes and bring them back after they shop.
"The reason we made that adjustment is that we found that there were some people that were shopping every day," he said. "And we recognized the reason was their ability to carry the groceries from the bus stop to their home."
Flint's program now serves as many as 4,000 riders. Ridership is growing, Benning said, and the program has landed more than $20,000 in grants to help fund it.
But similar programs around the country have struggled. A project in Jackson, Mississippi, stopped running last year because too few shoppers used the service.
John Brostrom, board president of the Duluth Transit Authority, said he doesn't anticipate that happening in Duluth.
"We think it's going to be a success," he said. "People have told us it's going to be a success. The proof in the pudding will be who gets on the bus and rides out here every Tuesday."
Brostrom said the DTA doesn't have a target number in mind. Staff will analyze ridership after the pilot project ends before deciding whether to continue. Organizers are also seeking grants to help fund the program.
Riding the bus home after finishing her shopping, Linda Hamsher said she plans to be a regular customer.
"The weather, the heavy grocery bags — it was just very difficult," she said. "This makes it a lot easier."
Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by Minnesota Public Radio News