Transportation Issues Affecting Fresh Food Distribution: A Comparison Study of Rural vs. Urban America

The goal of this study is to explore transportation-linked issues that affect food accessibility. Our team explored thirteen counties in rural Wisconsin along Lake Superior, and two urban New Jersey communities through interviews with grocers and distributors about their concerns and challenges. The project includes a literature review, data sets and mapping, and optimization modeling.

The Wisconsin study area comprises 13 counties, with a population density between 6.4 and 29.7 people per square mile. Interviewers indicated a 20-30% population swing between January and July due to summer residents and tourism. The region is classified by US Department of Agriculture as “Frontier and Remote”, with more than 12% of its population in the “Low Income Low Access” bracket. There are several Tribal Nations residing in this region, as well as federal and state lands. 244 businesses accept SNAP (food assistance). There are 6 big box stores, 47 full groceries and 48 dollar stores.

Transportation access is limited. Wisconsin is part of the MidAmerica Freight Coalition, along with Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas , Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio.   We found that Wisconsin has:

  • No interstates in study region
  • 50% of businesses and 60% of their employees are located along interstate corridors
  • More truck traffic on roads other than designated freight system than any other state in the coalition (65.8% compared to ave 44.2%)
  • Proposed interstate declined in 1963
  • Five state highways are primary distribution routes
  • North central Wisconsin freight is not well served

Working with WI DOT data, the Applied Population Lab mapped freight data for six types of fresh perishable foods. Several of the study regions had access to less than 0.1 pound per person per year per type of food from conventional distribution, while urban counties had 19-37 pounds available. These numbers may be inaccurate for a variety of reasons but point to disparity in food access between rural and urban counties.

Leafy vegetables

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Deciduous Fruit

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Tropical fruits

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Misc fresh vegetables

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Misc fresh fruit and nuts

In our interviews with retails and food banks, we heard concerns about food access:

When grandpa was here there were five grocery stores in [town]. Now there’s one. – large independent grocer

…we’re just big enough to be respectable. – large independent grocer

…distant corporate store headquarters are driving decisions that affect our community’s access to food. – food pantry volunteer

Industry needs to adjust to communities and not communities to industry. –food bank CEO

Distributors create a service area and choose clients based on a complex array of logistical factors:

  • access to and location of warehousing
  • fleet capacity
  • truck capacity
  • order size
  • distance
  • time to load and unload
  • driver working conditions

In our interviews with food distributors, we heard concerns about logistics:

We can go any amount of distance for the right amount of money. It’s just, you know, if we were to go somewhere and could not get back in one day, well, then we have to pay the driver layover time. And we basically use up two day’s worth of a driver for only one day of delivery. So we basically have to double our markup, you know, probably two and a half times maybe even three times to pay the layover. So now, that particular grocer would have to charge their customers at the local level. –midsize distributor

Between fuel and driver labor, and then truck wear and tear and insurance, we’re looking at about $2.25 per mile. So if something is 400 some miles round trip, well, now all of a sudden, it’s like, that’s, we need to make 800 some dollars on this truck. And if we’re only delivering 80 cases, then that’s not gonna, know that $320 isn’t, we’re not being profitable. So we tried to put other accounts with it to get more cases on the truck, and then we run into time issues. –midsize distributor


The driver has 11 hours of driving time to go round trip. And if we’re delivering all the way up to like Bayfield, and then trying to come home, it’s like, yeah, the driver could do that in one day, if that was the only stop on the truck. But to be profitable, we need multiple stops on the truck. So that’s why a lot of those really far out ones, we’re not really interested in it, because they, they don’t take sufficient enough volume to make it profitable for us, right? Because we work on a per case markup. –midsize distributor

Distributors talk about profitability:

And there’s people that are driving an hour just to go to the grocery store one way you know, because there’s nothing else available. And these Dollar Generals are really giving them that opportunity to put some, at least the basic fundamental items into their houses, at a cheaper cost…you’re either growing or you’re dying. And we’re looking, you know, we’ve opened new facilities, we were looking for external growth with acquiring other produce facilities. You know, the independent grocers, that concerns me the most, because I see the independent grocers just don’t have the capital to stick back into their stores. And over time, their business that they do have doesn’t have the value to be able to generate a new facility or the upkeep that’s necessary. So we see a lot more of those small grocers going out of business, or they’re fortunate to sell to a larger group that actually has the capital that tried to stick into the facility. –large distributor

Insights into rural food distribution

  • Rural food markets are unorganized and concentrating
  • Distributors provide incoming and outgoing services
  • Challenged to enhance/maintain fleets, face labor shortages, logistical challenges
  • Service area is defined by several factors, esp time, distance, order size
  • Low population density, limited freight network roadway access, and truck size limit options
  • Access to capital for logistics infrastructure, rural groceries needed.
  • Food assistance subsidies (e.g., SNAP, WIC, etc.) are sufficient to improve urban food access while food movement subsidies are also necessary to improve perishable food access in rural areas

This project runs from August 2021-August 2023 and is funded through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Transportation Services Division. A report will be issued in the fall 2023.