If you’ve ever wanted to find out if you live in a wasteland with a dearth of access to fresh and nutritious food, boy have we got the government-sponsored data mashup for you! The USDA just launched the “Food Desert Locator” which lets you see where it’s hard to get a decent bite to eat in America. A “food desert” (remember: not dessert, that has two s’s because you want more of it) is a low-income area where a most of the people live more than one mile from the nearest grocery store/supermarket. Thanks to this map, now we know why North Dakotans are so sad: no one will make them a sandwich!
A more detailed explanation of how the USDA determines a food desert says:
The HFFI working group defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store:
To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have either: 1) a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, OR 2) a median family income at or below 80 percent of the census tract’s median family income;
To qualify as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles).
Now, the map is hardly perfect. With such a broad reach and a shallow depth to the data there are going to be some humorous local aberrations. In one instance, the grocery store down the road from one of our writers is listed as being inside a food desert. And there is a grocery store across the street from it.
Moreover, some of the food deserts appear to be sparsely populated zones where it seems a good number of the people might rely on growing and hunting their own food, along with stockpiling when they make trips into town. But there are also children in these areas who might not be getting all the nutrition they need for healthy development. Having access to a reliable local supply of nutritious food would be better, and data visualizations like this can be the first step to creating transparency around areas of need.