Mapping Food Access

Assuming you're not an out-of-touch 18th century monarch, you probably realize that not everyone has access to fresh, healthful food.  It’s a complicated problem created by a multitude of direct and indirect causes – and it’s a dilemma that’s confounded policymakers, community organizers, academics, activists and planners for decades.  But at the most basic level, lack of access can be attributed to three factors: financial resources, the cost of food and food availability.

Financial Resources

I took a few economics classes back in the day, so I was able to develop the following dazzlingly incisive analysis: those of us who don’t produce everything we eat (i.e., the vast majority of the population) need to buy food.  As a result, those who lack financial resources (i.e., money), can be expected to have difficulty accessing food.  In the US, the government attempts to address this through food assistance programs.  They're far from perfect, but certain components are commendable – like the fact that EBT cards can now be used at an ever-growing number of farmers' markets.  Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that even the best food assistance programs fail to address the underlying problem: the fact that even in a nation of such tremendous wealth, many people can’t afford basic necessities like food.

Cost of Food

Brace yourself for another mind-blowing economic revelation: if the prices of healthful foods are high, these foods will be less accessible to those who have limited financial resources.  The government can reduce food prices through implementation of various policy mechanisms… and in the US, Uncle Sam does exactly this!  Unfortunately, US policies are geared toward lowering the prices of unhealthful foods (e.g., foods that are highly processed and/or loaded with sugar, cheap factory farmed meat, eggs and dairy, etc.), rather than making healthful foods more affordable.  A very basic summary: the US doles out huge subsidies to industrial farms that produce commodity crops like corn and soy, which ultimately provides a super-cheap source of ingredients for big food processors (for instance, heavily subsidized corn means crazy-cheap high fructose corn syrup – which ends up being added to just about every food that comes in a box, bottle or plastic package).  These subsidies also facilitate the production of industrial meat, eggs and dairy by factory farms, which rely on cheap commodity crops to serve as animal feed.  As a result, foods that everyone knows are unhealthful (e.g., soda, big macs, pop tarts, etc.) are really cheap, while healthful foods (e.g., fruits and vegetables) are comparatively expensive.

An important side note: the full cost of food actually includes more than just the sticker price at the grocery store.  Indeed, unless you eat exclusively at restaurants or adhere unfailingly to a raw food diet, some amount of preparation is involved in making meals – this requires time, effort and access to tools for food preparation.  These resources aren’t universally available: time is scarce (especially for those working multiple jobs to make ends meet) and not everyone has access to a kitchen with basic equipment like a stove and refrigerator.

Food Availability

If healthful food is hard to find (or completely unavailable) within a person’s zone of reasonably easy travel, then it’s not readily accessible.  Obviously, the size of this travel zone varies according to a person’s mobility, access to transportation and the characteristics of his or her location.  For instance, my uncle, who owns a car and lives in a sparsely populated rural area, can easily drive to a grocery store ten miles from his house.  But when my 85-year-old grandmother lived in the Bronx, a ten-mile trip to go food shopping would have been virtually impossible; since she didn’t own a car and couldn’t walk long distances or stand waiting for the bus, my grandmother’s food options were limited to the stores located within a few blocks of her apartment.

As advocates have long struggled to publicize, the availability of healthful food varies dramatically.  Lamentably, so-called “food deserts” (areas that lack adequate local sources and/or distribution of fresh, healthful food) exist throughout the US, in both urban and rural areas.  It doesn’t take an advanced degree in food security to recognize that this condition severely restricts residents' ability to access the foods necessary to maintain a healthy diet.

In order to effectively address this piece of the food access dilemma, it’s necessary to identify areas in which healthful food is not readily available.  Although this is a difficult and complicated task, the magic of computers, GIS and the internet have facilitated several projects that make remarkably robust collections of data available to the public.  Perhaps most notable is the USDA Economic Research Service’s Food Environment Atlas, an interactive website that allows users to create maps that depict an impressive array of food and health-related data for communities throughout the US.  For instance, a user can pull up maps that portray the number of grocery stores in a given area, or the expenditures on fast food, or participation in food assistance programs, or number of farmers' markets.  You can even create maps that display the average price of soda.

More recently, The Reinvestment Fund released its Low Access Area Map, which depicts underserved food areas as determined by TRF’s analysis of several data categories, including number of supermarkets, population density, income levels and rates of car ownership.  Basically, their model operates under the assumptions that supermarkets are a reliable indicator of food access and that high income areas are food-secure, and thus have a sufficient number of supermarkets.  Low access areas (LAAs) are then identified by comparing the number of supermarkets in low income areas to the number in high income areas that share similar rates of car ownership and population density.  (Find the full details on TRF’s methodology page.)  This analysis is ultimately coupled with food dollar leakage data (the amount of money residents of LAAs spend on food at retailers outside the LAA) in order to identify locations within LAAs where supermarkets can be built that would remain financially viable (i.e., earn a profit) over time.

Of course, though building supermarkets in LAAs is a laudable endeavor, it’s not the only way to bring fresh, healthful food into underserved communities.  In addition to time-tested options such as farmers' markets and CSAs, unique, innovative solutions continue to emerge throughout the country – for instance, the USDA’s mobile produce carts, NYC’s healthy bodega initiative, the installation of school gardens and the creation of urban farms.  We hope these trends continue.  Because while the rapid expansion of sustainable agriculture is wonderful, everyone should have access to the healthful food it produces.