How Transportation Infrastructure Spending Impacts the Food System

If you're one of those people whose eyes glaze over when politicians talk about infrastructure, it might be a good time to pay closer attention, especially if you care about sustainable food. Infrastructure is a broad term that covers many factors that influence how we live, and, as it relates to transportation, includes things like roadways, railways, waterways and aviation systems - all of which affect how your food gets to you. Transportation infrastructure is what makes this country - including our food system - work, and when we fail to fund and maintain it properly, it fails to provide for us.

How Does Our Food System Depend on Transportation Infrastructure?

The importance of functioning roadways to our survival was brought into sharp relief with Hurricane Maria and the damage inflicted on Puerto Rico's roads. Conditions quickly became described as "apocalyptic" because, where roads were rendered impassible, food and water deliveries became impossible. People are in desperate need of help, but the help can't quite get to them.

Of course Puerto Rico is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Those of us on the mainland might not have the same worries about food and water getting to us because there's another town just down the road and the road is in good shape. Or is it? Unfortunately, transporation infrastructure failures - even seemingly small ones - can impact us in ways that we might never have imagined.

How Dependent on Transportation Infrastructure Is Sustainable Agriculture?

Impacts to the food system from under- or unfunded infrastructure could also affect local foods sold directly to consumers through farmers' markets, grocery stores and CSAs as well as farm sales to institutions like schools, hospitals and other food service providers.

While the majority of farm sales come from very few farms in the US (about eight percent), 50 percent of farms report less than $10,000 annually. The increasing trend of mergers and consolidation creates an uneven distribution of sales that puts a lot of financial pressure on small farmers. Many lack the infrastructure to bring their own products to markets and processing centers.

In fact, one of the biggest limits to growth and increased income potential for small farmers is the ability to get their products to markets and processing facilities. A major burden for food hubs based in rural areas that aren't close to urban markets is the logistical issues associated with aggregating and distributing products. Failing roadways only exacerbate those issues.

For example, livestock producers used to have more options for slaughtering and processing their animals. It used to be that small slaughterhouses existed throughout the US which meant that animals traveled shorter distances for processing. The transition to factory farming and increased consolidation put most small, independent slaughterhouses out of business. Now, farmers have to truck their livestock greater distances, which stresses out the animals and increases the opportunities for injuries and illnesses.

A characteristic (and benefit) of local food systems is that direct marketing to consumers accounts for a higher percentage of sales in smaller farms than for larger farms; however, a significant barrier to local food-market entry and expansion includes a lack of distribution systems getting local food into markets.

Unfortunately, many small farmers lack capital to buy vehicles or to invest in local, climate-controlled storage facilities and many rural roadways are not equipped to handle increased freight capacity that comes with transporting food. The American Society of Civil Engineers wrote about the condition of the country's rural roads, saying, "...they lack adequate capacity, they fail to provide needed levels of connectivity to many communities, and they cannot adequately support growing freight travel in many corridors."

Three Days Until Major Food Shortages

"Be Prepared to Stop," a documentary released last spring, presciently predicted the Puerto Rico situation, illustrating how quickly roadway problems can become apocalyptic. According to the filmmakers, "We rely on those roads...to supply us with just about everything we use every day. But this round-the-clock lifeline has become so entrenched in our daily routines, we don't even notice it anymore. Now that neglect is reaching a crisis point."

For example, over a five-day time period without trucks being able to get to a particular location, the impacts to our food system quickly add up. In the first 24 hours, there are already food shortages. By Day 2, fresh produce, milk and water start disappearing and people start to panic. After three to four days, there are major food shortages. The problems only get worse from there. Restaurants and other institutions start running out of food and within two to four weeks, there are drinking water shortages as water treatment plants go off line. If this sounds melodramatic, it's not. Americans absolutely rely on our roadways and the trucks that deliver just about everything to us either directly or through retailers. Without them, our lives would be a lot more unlivable.

What Is the State of Our Nations' Transportation Infrastructure and How Much Money do We Spend on it?

While the US spends more than most countries on transportation infrastructure (we rank second only to China in roadway spending), we rank 10th in terms of the quality of our roadways. Civil engineering evaluations paint a bleaker picture.

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers evaluates the nation's infrastructure and assigns a letter grade to the various aspects. The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card provides some interesting insights: roadways received a D (and that grade has been worsening since the first report card in 1998 due, primarily, to the condition of rural roadways); bridges received a C+; railways fared the best with a B. The report indicates that there is an $836 billion backlog of highway and bridge capital needs, with the bulk of that needed to repair existing highways. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the the Highway Trust Fund will run out of money by 2021, which means the grade for the nation's roadways may go even lower.

A poll done last summer found that an overwhelming majority of Americans in urban, suburban and rural communities all support infrastructure investments, with 89 percent believing they will strengthen the economy. The current administration has maintained that it is committed to improving America's infrastructure, promising $1 trillion in infrastructure spending. In actuality, however, the budget shows cuts to infrastructure spending and so far discussions have focused on reducing permitting requirements for infrastructure projects rather than funding, so it's not clear yet how committed the administration actually is to funding roadway improvements.

While our food system needs a lot of changes that have little to do with transportation, funding our transportation system is critical to its success, whether at the local, regional or national scale. If the disaster that is still unfolding in Puerto Rico has taught us anything, it's that we need a transportation system that is fully functional now and resilient in the face of future disasters.