From purchasing buses that run on biodiesel to using electrically powered maintenance vehicles, the University has made a concerted effort to reduce the environmental impact of its on-campus transportation. If the University truly wishes to be sustainable, however, it must focus on how its 80,000 students, faculty and staff move around Ann Arbor. The University should begin working towards this goal by running buses to off-campus grocery stores. This service would not only reduce the University’s steadily increasing carbon footprint, but also help alleviate the issue of food security on campus.
Though we often focus on how many miles the food has traveled from the farm’s fields to the grocery store’s aisles, the number of miles driven by food shoppers is just as important. Studies conducted by the U.K. Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that 82 percent of food miles — the distance food travels from production to consumer — were not generated globally, but from travel within Great Britain. Of those food miles, 48 percent came from consumer shopping trips, while the trucking of food accounted for 31 percent of food miles. Switching to buses would be a relatively easy way to minimize the environmental impact of food shopping, which is often overlooked despite these statistics signaling that the issue should be addressed.
Even more, this service will help address another sustainability-related issue: food access. According to research done by the Student Food Co., the University’s student-run produce stand, 45 percent of University students live in neighborhoods that the United States Department of Agriculture would consider food deserts, which it defines as a “low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Considering that 45 percent of students do not own or have access to a car, this came as a shock; I had always thought of Ann Arbor as an affluent college town. But with the recent closing of White Market and the prevalence of high-priced grocery stores like Babo and Replenish within walking distance, it became easy to see Ann Arbor as a food desert.
Not only do many students live in food deserts but many also experience food insecurity. Of the students surveyed by the Student Food Co., 37 percent were food insecure, meaning that they reported experiencing “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet” and of those students, 12.6 percent experienced hunger. What makes this all the more frightening is that the student body’s food insecurity rate is more than twice the national average of 14.9 percent. Given that living in a food desert and being food insecure are often linked with unhealthy diets, poorer health and higher rates of obesity, the University, which has an active interest in the student body’s overall well-being, should work towards improving student food access.
This would not be without its challenges. The University will have to go through the energy, time and money-intensive process of adding bus routes. Even more, coordination with the Ann Arbor Transit Authority, who already services these grocery stores, could be an obstacle. Some may argue that having two bus services to the various grocery stores would be redundant, but with the lengthy wait times between AATA buses and the not-always-conveniently located bus stops, having a bus scheduled around students’ hectic schedules would only complement what the AATA already provides.
After sorting out the logistics, the work still wouldn’t be done: the University would have to get students to actually use the buses, which might be the most daunting task of all. For students without cars, this shouldn’t be too hard. While selling produce at the Student Food Co. during my weekly shift, it’s obvious that students are eager and excited to buy fresh food. But convincing students with cars to sacrifice time and convenience for the greater environmental good won’t be easy. However, by arranging savings at the market as a reward for using the bus and stressing the gas money saved, students just might be convinced.
Zoe Stahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.