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SouthWest Transit has launched a new pilot service to provide half-price rides to the grocery store.

For $2 each way, the transit agency's Grocery Getter takes customers to supermarkets in its service area, which includes Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska, Eden Prairie and Victoria.

Shoppers book their appointment on SouthWest's on-demand ride service, SW Prime. A bus will take them to stores such as Cub, Lunds & Byerlys, Target, Kowalski's, Cooper's, Aldi and Costco, and bring them home.

The service, which operates on weekday mornings, debuted Jan. 11 and during its first week about four to six people a day hopped on, said CEO Len Simich.

SouthWest makes food shelf deliveries a few times a month, but Simich said food bank directors and county social services staff told him there was a need for transportation. With ridership on SW Prime about half of what it was before COVID-19 hit, Simich said there was room on buses to offer inexpensive rides to those who need groceries.

"It was clear a number of people in our service area need additional help during these unprecedented times," he said. "We came up with something we could implement quickly."

About 70% of riders who use SW Prime are dependent on transit, Simich said.

The Grocery Getter is a "neat idea," said Richard Crawford of the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, which also operates an on-demand ride service. He said the agency, which serves eight communities south of the Minnesota River, might consider adding a similar service in the future.

Public transportation systems across the country have been adapting during the pandemic by finding new ways to serve the community. The Grocery Getter is on the "leading edge," said Chad Chitwood, a spokesman for the American Public Transportation Association based in Washington, D.C.

"People need food and to get to the pharmacy, and this is a way of knocking them out at one time," Chitwood said.

Grocery Getter will operate until June. At that time, Simich said, SouthWest will consider how many people are using the service, whether the agency will need to restore express service for workers returning to downtown Minneapolis and if the agency can afford to keep operating it, as well as the ongoing impact of COVID.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768