Serious Eats

Exploring the USDA's Food Desert Locator

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Last week, the USDA released the Food Desert Locator, an interactive map which allows users to see where there is poor food access across the country. This map was inspired and influenced by Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, and is meant to further educate Americans on food distribution in the country.

The stated objectives of the Locator include providing census data about food access that can be used for "community planning or research purposes"—hopefully to improve the living conditions of those highlighted on the map.

A "food desert" generally refers to an area where the population has limited access to fresh, healthy foods. Often the foods that are available in food deserts are from fast food chains or convenience stores. This Locator highlights "low-access" census tracts using the metric that at least 500 people and/or 33% of the community lives more than a mile from a supermarket or grocery store. It also discusses "low-income" populations, defined as where 40% or more of the community has an annual income equal to or less than twice the federal poverty threshold.

According to the USDA's calculations, 8.4% of Americans, or 23.5 million people, live in low-income neighborhoods that are more than a mile from a supermarket. More specifically, about 2.2%, or 2.3 million people, live in such low-income neighborhoods a mile or more from a supermarket, and do not have a car. For these individuals and families, access to supermarkets is limited to carpooling or, more likely, taking the bus—a physically taxing proposition made more difficult in places where buses don't stop near a grocery.

This map is highly useful for visualizing the prevalence and presence of food deserts nationwide. It sends the message that not only urban areas are affected by poor food access; indeed, many rural communities must also travel long distances to reach fresh food (the USDA defines a rural food desert as an area where a percentage of the population lives more than 10 miles away from the nearest large grocery). It also helps to clarify why we have persistent food insecurity - about 15% of households in 2009, up from 12% in 2004.

There are of course many factors involved in discussing food deserts that are overlooked by the fairly bare-bones data provided by this map.

For instance, why emphasize the importance of grocery stores versus fast food restaurants or convenience stores? Aren't those food access points, too? Yes, but the food offered at these locations is largely less nutritional and potentially less fresh than food that could be found at a supermarket. Choices are generally extremely limited. And for those foods that can be found, prices are higher, especially staples like milk, bread, and veggies. Low-income communities may have many convenience stores, but those stores stock foods with little nutritional or financial viability.

Another issue not addressed in this map is what kinds of supermarkets and grocery stores are available to low-income communities. A certain community may not qualify as a food desert by the USDA's standards if there is a Whole Foods within a mile radius—but the presence of that particular supermarket does little to alleviate issues of food access. Even less "elite" markets such as Stop & Shop may still not meet the needs of some communities. Superstores or bulk sellers are most needed in low-income areas, but those stores are often unwilling to set up shop in urban settings with limited land for sprawling warehouses and parking lots.

Examining this map peppered with evidence of poor food distribution can be disheartening. However, I've had some direct experience with the sorts of reforms that the USDA is hoping to see implemented to address these issues of food access.

Providence, Rhode Island, my current residence, is a food desert with many communities in need of improved access. In the last five years, a dozen community gardens, low-price buying clubs and CSAs, small groceries sourcing local foods, and a growing number of farmers markets have all addressed issues of food access in a variety of creative and successful ways. We've got a long way to go in feeding the community, but have made many strides.

If you're concerned about your own city or another local food desert, try to seek out and support similar initiatives, so we can all put our knowledge to good use.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

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