RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—As defined by the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "food deserts" are places where nutritious food is beyond the easy reach or budget of the average consumer. It can be anyplace where a substantial number of residents classify as low-income, and/or they live far from or don’t have a car to get to a supermarket or large grocery store. Instead, they’re forced to shop in smaller stores that may not have a good choice of affordable, nutritious foods, or in "food swamps," places with easy access to an overflow of fast food or unhealthy (processed, refined, high-calorie, low-nutrition) choices.
THE DETAILS: About 10 percent of all 6,500 census tracts in this country qualify as food deserts, representing 13.5 million people, with 82 percent of these living in urban areas. Food deserts may contain households with a range of incomes, says ERS economist Michele Ver Ploeg, PhD, but specifically, the food desert designation means either that 20 percent of the census tract's population is living below the federal poverty line or that the median income of the census tract is at or below the area’s median income. Or that it’s a low-access community, with at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population living more than a mile from a supermarket (10 miles if the district is rural).
If all that sounds hard to figure out, you don't have to do the math. Ver Ploeg helped create the new online tool, the Food Desert Locator (ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert) interactive map, which you can use to see how your neighborhood measures up. Plug in any address to go to a region. Food deserts will show up in pink. Data came from a 2006 directory of food stores and the 2000 Census, and was presented as a report to Congress in 2009.
WHAT IT MEANS: The Food Desert Locator came out of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-obesity initiative. Along with the Food Environment Atlas, the Food Desert Locator will help determine eligibility for grants awarded through a new Healthy Food Financing Initiative to put more grocery stores, farmer's markets, and other sources of healthy food in food deserts. It’s a partnership between the Treasury Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the USDA.
Even if you don’t live in a food desert, you may be having a more difficult time these days putting good food on your family’s table. In New Hampshire, for example, a state that traditionally scores low in poverty and high in health, a 2010 Carsey Institute study found that "current levels of food insecurity are the highest since surveys were initiated [in 1995 by the USDA] and may well reflect the consequences of a deteriorating economy and increased unemployment."