Jan. 17--Lynchburg is launching a new gambit in its campaign to fight food deserts.
Starting Saturday, a pilot program will offer free bus rides between James River Crossing and Food Lion on Florida Avenue in an effort to make it easier for residents to gain access to healthy, affordable foods.
The new initiative, which may be expanded if successful, is a partnership of the Lynchburg Health Department and the Greater Lynchburg Transit Company.
It was inspired by neighborhood concerns expressed in November during a community meeting organized by Amazing Grace Outreach Church.
"We are just in awe," Amazing Grace Rev. Ricky Linthicum said of the quick response received on the issue. "You know, initially, we were talking about trying to get a church van to drive people maybe once or twice a month. So we were going to do something either way. But God opened a door so we could do it better and bigger, and we're just grateful for that."
The pilot program will offer free bus rides to people between Greenfield Drive and Food Lion for a two-hour period every Saturday morning from now until further notice.
Greenfield Drive is the site of James River Crossing, a large housing development for low-income tenants. It is in a census tract deemed a food desert or area without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.
It's one of about half a dozen areas in the city with that designation. The pilot program location was strategically chosen to serve James River Crossing and surrounding residents.
"This is about having better access to better food," said Leslie Hoglund, senior health educator with the Central Virginia Health District.
Lack of transportation has been cited as one barrier for people trying to get to the grocery store. The Food Lion is about a mile away from Greenfield Drive. The closest food option for that neighborhood is a corner convenience store, where customers' options tend to be limited to more costly processed products.
"There are people who do walk down to Food Lion, but the sidewalks are not all connected, so if you're pushing a stroller or have kids with you, it makes it very difficult," Hoglund said. "You're also limited in what you can carry back. Carrying more than a couple bags for a mile can get tiring."
During the November meeting at Amazing Grace Outreach Church, community members brought this up as one of the issues they wanted to address.
Hoglund reached out to Linthicum with the pilot idea, and GLTC agreed to come aboard. The bus company will allow people to ride between the identified stops for free between 10 a.m. and noon Saturdays as long as the program lasts.
The Lynchburg Health Department will reimburse the system for its lost fares, using a mix of grant funding received as part of the Live Healthy Lynchburg initiative from the Virginia Department of Health and the Greater Lynchburg Community Trust.
"I had always heard of food deserts, but I never thought about our role in it," GLTC General Manager Karen Walton said. "When Leslie brought this up, I thought, yeah, why can't we do it?
"We're hoping it takes off, and we can do similar projects for other food deserts in Lynchburg. If people can get to grocery stores, they can make healthy choices, buy fruits and vegetables, things they're not as likely to get at a corner market where the choices are chips and hot dogs and things that are more expensive."
"It's going to be easier on their pocket books and healthier for their bellies."
The pilot program has no set end date, but Hoglund said they'll monitor the ridership numbers and consider how to proceed.
Linthicum said he was confident the service would succeed.
"I don't hope, I know what it will achieve," he said. "It will achieve safety for people who've had to walk to the store. It will empower them to eat better and make better choices for their children and themselves.