New Hope 360 Blog

Food desert map reveals a desolate United States

A new online, interactive map outlines food deserts in the United States. But if a food desert is to be defined by barriers which restrict access to healthy foods, then maybe the conventional food industry is the largest food desert of all.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Project (have you seen the Beyonce video?), recently developed the Food Desert Locator – an online, interactive map that outlines food deserts in the United States. A light pink overlay designates a food desert, which the HFFI defines as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access  to a supermarket or large grocery store."

Food Desert LocatorBut let's take the definition one step further. If a food desert is to be defined by barriers which restrict access to healthy foods, then maybe the conventional food industry is the largest food desert of all. For proof, just look to the the center aisles of many grocery and convenient stores.

With this expanded definition in mind, my bet is that food deserts (both in terms of the HFFI's definition and my interpretation) are far more numerous than what's pictured on the map.

What "low access" means

Can you imagine driving 10 miles to a grocery store only to be greeted with no real food as far as the eye can see? Or walking one mile in a city, for those who don't have cars?

The HFFI defines low access to a healthy food retail outlet as just that – more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas, and 10 miles for rural areas.  I'm fortunate to live in Denver, Colo., and work in Boulder, two towns with farmer's markets and ample natural foods supermarkets. But even here, according to the map, there are food deserts – some just 5 minutes away from where I live.

Less healthy farms, less healthy food

Farms such as those talked about in the movie trailer Farmageddon – beautiful, organic farms targeted by Big Ag – are the source of the healthy food which ends up in supermarkets. Why is it in the 21st century, with bananas coming from Ecuador to feed our appetites for the fruit year-round, do we limit our own producers of foodin our own country? Indeed, fellow blogger Kelsey Blackwell pointed out earlier this year that USDA estimates 6 percent of all U.S. households do not have access to quality food.

But it's not only growing quality food that's the problem. It's being able to stock and sustain a grocery business with that healthy food in a rural area. Natural Foods Merchandiser reported in November 2010 that rural grocery stores are slowly disappearing throughout the nation, particularly in the Midwest.

I wonder what the map would look like today if it included this data. As you can imagine, the Food Desert Locator is a little outdated: All store data came from the 2006 directory of stores, and all population and household data come from the 2000 Census of Population and Housing. But like any statistic, the map is a snapshot in time that can (I hope) positively influence the future. In this case, getting real, healthy food to the people who need it most.

Do you live in a food desert or near one? Share your experience in the comments.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on May 5, 2011

The food desert map corresponds fairly closely to the map of counties with high poverty rates in the U.S. New Mexico, for example, is mostly blocked in on both maps. As such, I think the food desert situation is a symptom of a wider problem of the growing inequality of income distribution. And in the rural counties the issue is not necessarily one of poverty, though there is a correlation. It's a more complicated demographic interplay of the ongoing aggregation in agriculture causing rural populations to fall generally, the low birthrate among white Americans who still make up the lion's share of farm acreage landowners, and the changing expectations of farm kids. Related, too, is the pressure on education funding spurring rural school districts to consolidate schools. Once a rural community loses its school, it usually dies in short order, making another blotch on the food desert map.

on May 5, 2011

Socio-economics should have nothing to do with the food desert concept. healthy food is as difficult to find if you are rich as poor.

The problem is in the food itself.

I invite you to read this article (http://www.cherikoff.net/cherikoff/index.php?id=236) as background to my comments but even our fresh produce is becoming nutritionally dilute.

As we reduce the concentration of antioxidants in our fruits and vegetables, pump up the sucrose content and also add fat to our diet in huge proportions, we get fat, suffer from the super-condition called metaflammation and eventually our quality of life falls as our health services get swamped and government health budgets blow out.

The food desert expands.

Here in Australia we are harvesting wild foods which are nutritionally dense and have the ability to repair much of the damage modern foods cause. Kakadu Juice (www.kakadujuice.com/superfoods) is a protective food in use and in research projects simultaneously. We had to make it available for people to use as a preventative to obesity as being over-weight is pandemic here as it is in most developed countries.

My definition of a food desert is anywhere the Kakadu Juice can't be bought and people can't grow something to eat for themselves.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 6, 2011

I agree. I live in an urban area and have access to 10 different grocery stores within 6 miles. However, in the poorest area of the city they have one grocery store within 10 miles and a higher population. The Midwest grocery stores are disappearing because "big-box" stores are moving into rural areas and decimating any grocery store within 40-50 miles - which is as much the consumers fault as the stores when they can't resist saving a few bucks.

on May 11, 2011

Thanks for this, Caren. Folks from New Hope have been going out and talking to consumers about challenges to wellness that they experience—and access to a nonWalmart source of food is a big one for many. With busy lives and pricey gas, people need to shop close to home. Innovative ways to grow food at home are multiplying--I just read about a system apartment-dwellers can install iin a window--but I'd love to hear some more solutions, both grass-roots and government-incentivized.

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