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

The long-term goal of this study is to improve food accessibility to underserved communities. Our team explores a remote rural region in Wisconsin along Lake Superior, and two urban New Jersey communities to understand the interface between transportation infrastructure, logistics, and community access to fresh produce. The project includes a literature review, data sets and mapping, and interviews with grocery store owners and their distributors.


Early findings from the literature review indicate scant research, especially for rural produce access, excessive grocery costs along the supply chain for perishable goods, and a system that discourages independent grocer success.


Early findings for Wisconsin’s 13 northern counties

Key informant interviews

  • Biggest concerns in delivery have to do with staffing throughout the supply chain: truck drivers, store staff, distribution staff, and managers.
  • Logistics inefficiencies underlie driver shortages
    • Hours of Service (HoS) rule
    • Load/unload delays
    • Parking challenges, drop & hook opportunities
  • 5 different “domicile areas” for truck swaps – two in the study region are Superior &  Marinette WI
  • Spring road bans (due to freeze/thaw) requires seasonal re-routing.
  • Weight limits an issue in summer months because trucks are heavier.
  • Business is seasonal with 20-25% swing between January and July.
  • Road designation does not necessarily determine whether or not truck will drive on it to make deliveries.

Mapping the data

Grocer interviews

  • Summer residents and tourists triple population, some winter tourism
  • 3 out of 5 stores rely on one distributor – non-competitive environment for wholesale
    • minimum order too high for smaller grocery stores ~ $500
    • # of deliveries depends on location and populations serve, smaller communities 1-2x/week, larger service area 5-6x/week
  • 4 of 5 stores indicated limited local produce availability, mainly due to few local sources
  • 4 of 5 stores have sister business that diversify income stream especially during winter months – 3 had hardware stores; also, bank, deer processing center, pharmacy
  • 4 of 5 stores indicated that one of the Dollar chains were their biggest competitor – these Dollar chains do not offer fresh produce, but dry goods and some dairy products
  • Competitive advantage from fresh produce, meat, in-house bakery, some dairy: Customers may do “big shop” for dry goods at Walmart, Dollar Stores, but rely on these groceries for weekly purchases.
  • Some small stores source fresh produce from Walmart, Kwik Trip for resale
  • Mennonite supply chain – OH and PA distributors, plus Amish auction
  • Stores think population served within between 20-30-mile radius
  • No major transportation issues in produce delivery – occasional ice-storm may delay 24-hours


This project runs from August 2021-August 2022 and is funded through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, Transportation Services Division.