A New Online Map to Find - and Fill - Food Deserts

May 13, 2011, 4:08 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth


A new online mapping tool from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping identify census tracts within the nation where low-income communities overlap with limited access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

The new tool, called the Food Desert Locator, is an Internet-based mapping tool that directs users to "food deserts" around the country. Food deserts are low-income communities that lack ready access to healthy food.

The tool was developed by the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). The goal of the tool is to help communities expand the availability of healthy food.

"This new Food Desert Locator will help policy makers, community planners, researchers, and other professionals identify communities where public-private intervention can help make fresh, healthy, and affordable food more readily available to residents," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The map is based on census tracts. According to USDA, about 10 percent of the 65,000 census tracts in the U.S. meet the definition of a food desert. Approximately 13.5 million people live in these census tracts, most in urban areas.

The new mapping tool lets users access a map of the U.S. that highlights and identifies census tracts that qualify as food deserts. Users can scan the map and zoom into an area or use the search feature to find a specific location. They can then create smaller maps showing food desert census tracts and also access statistics on population characteristics of a selected tract, such as the number of households without a car. Not having easy access to transportation can be a factor that can keep households from purchasing healthy foods if neighborhood stores don’t stock them.

Weigh in: Do you live in a "food desert"? Is your community doing anything to change that?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.