A Philadelphia agency is experimenting with discounted trips on the Lyft ride-share service to connect low-income communities with healthy food.
For many people living in poorer neighborhoods, said Atif Bostic, executive director of the food access nonprofit Uplift Solutions, “there really is no place to get fresh and healthy food.”
The partnership among Lyft, Uplift, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority will offer $2.50 rides between home and a grocery store for people living at 11 PHA apartment complexes in North Philadelphia starting Sept. 1. About 75 percent of PHA residents make less than $27,000 annually, said Nichole Tillman, a spokesperson.
Almost 1,700 residents will be eligible. The flat-rate fare can be used eight times a month, equivalent to one round trip a week to either the ShopRite on Fox Street north of Hunting Park Avenue or the Fresh Grocer at Broad and Oxford Streets. A trip from some of the PHA developments to those stores could be four times as expensive at Lyft’s regular rates.
The fare is being subsidized by Lyft for now, said Bostic, adding that he is seeking sponsors to fund the program after the six-month pilot ends.
PHA and Uplift acknowledged that accessing a ride-share requires a bank account and a smartphone or computer, which some people in low-income communities don’t have. There will be coordinators at PHA complexes to help people use Lyft, but Tillman said there are some who may face obstacles.
“We want to assist as many residents as we can,” she said.
Lyft said Philadelphia is the 10th U.S. city to participate in its food-access program. The Grocery Access Program began in Washington last year. A sign-up event was held for PHA residents, Lyft said, and registration is still open through resident leadership.
About 327,000 Philadelphians live with food insecurity, and many of the residents eligible for the Lyft program live in food deserts, defined as places without access to fresh food within a mile drive or half-mile walk for either 500 or more people or 33% of the population, depending on the size of the area.
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Food shopping options within walking distance of the Nellie Reynolds Gardens Apartments, a PHA senior housing development for about 70 people, are limited to a few bodegas and a plethora of nearly identical Chinese restaurants, many of which are shuttered during the day.
Those living at the Strawberry Mansion development have to travel up to two miles to shop for groceries, said Albert Dukes, 66.
“Most of the time I would have to get SEPTA and go out of my way,” he said.
Others rely on unlicensed cabbies who can charge up to $30 for trips of just a few miles. The apartments’ elderly residents rely on public assistance that arrives at the beginning of the month. “The first two weeks of the month they know we’re open prey,” Dukes said, circling the complex looking for customers.
The people living at Nellie Reynolds Gardens face difficult choices, Dukes said. Many require medication for chronic conditions, but their limited incomes force them to make trade-offs between their treatment and other necessities.
The retiree, who had a career working with adults with behavioral health issues, has a fixed income of about $1,600 a month, he said, but about $900 of that goes toward medication for his heart condition.
During his three grocery-store trips a month, he has to decide how much to dedicate to food or medication. Having access to a cheap trip to a grocery at a rate comparable to a bus fare is an asset, he said.
“Every little bit helps us,” he said, “and this is a big thing to us.”