The food desert in your own backyard
May 3rd, 2011
11:45 AM ET
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America's national image may be one of waving wheat fields and overflowing platters, but the reality for many communities is much less plentiful. A new interactive map built by the United States Department of Agriculture allows users to locate the food deserts in their neighborhood and across the country, simply by typing in an address or zip code.

Here's how the USDA explains the term:

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).


As part of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative - a joint effort of the Treasury Department, Health and Human Services, USDA along with along with staff from the Economic Research Service - will "expand the availability of nutritious food to food deserts—low-income communities without ready access to healthy and affordable food—by developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores, and farmers markets with fresh and healthy food," according to the USDA's website.

Read more on food deserts in New Orleans, Detroit, Los Angeles and Newark, New Jersey and see all food desert coverage on Eatocracy.

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Filed under: Food Deserts • Food Politics • Hunger • Michelle Obama • News


soundoff (56 Responses)
  1. r

    I attend Duke University, which apparently is a food desert.

    August 3, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  2. MalaDee

    Well, aren't you just a little ray of sunshine?

    May 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  3. CHARLOTTE

    The pink areas of Michigan are very sparsely populated, or are state or national forest areas. I'm sure many people in the UP and the lower peninsula are very happy to grow their own... the Michigan "Trolls", those who live below the bridge, live in or near larger cities besides the state and national forest areas as well. Some do well to also grow their own if they choose. Others wouldn't know how, since they depend too much on the grocery stores and don't even know where milk or an egg really come from.

    May 9, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  4. Curioso

    Oops, sorry for my crappy grammar...

    May 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  5. Curioso

    I agree with the posters on here who critiqued the USDA's measurements. Access to a big-box grocery store shouldn't be the only index for food security. We need to take into account other ways people in these supposed "food deserts" are getting food, like gardening. I do wonder if this food desert construct is useful if applied to populations who might not be so self-sufficient, like the elderly. For those of you who grew up in or currently live in one of these rural census tracts, do you think there are people who are vulnerable people who just aren't getting the nutrition they need? And if they are, how? (Thinking of social networks, church groups, etc.)

    Thanks!

    May 8, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  6. T

    As someone who lives outside the beltway and inside a "food desert" it may come as a shock to the city folk who make up this nonsense, but vast areas of the country are actually deserts and no one lives there! We like living far enough away from our neighbors that we can't see or hear them. By definition that means the grocery store is more than 10 miles away (DUH) and we like it that way. It's not a "food desert"; it's good neighbors.
    Just make sure you moneygrubbers stay in your cities and leave us alone. Stop trying to make us all into government lapdogs. We can feed ourselves, thank you very much, just let us get back to work and stop making up more ridiculous laws like S 510 (seriously, not helpful!). Go back to your cocktail parties with your know-it-all syncophant friends and we will pull ourselves up by our bootstraps just like every great American has before us. It can be done so get out of our way.

    May 7, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  7. Jenna D

    There seems to be an error. One "food desert" is in the heart of Cal Poly Pomona in California. Agriculture is one of the major studies there. There is even a Farm Store open to the public. A lot of fresh produce. And several major grocery stores just down the street. Perhaps the census didn't take into the account that the residents are students. And quite possible some undocumented residents in surrounding areas.

    May 6, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  8. TRouble

    This is such a crock and waste of discussion. People have choices in life. Growing a garden would be one. Not EVERYTHING needs gov't intervention.

    May 6, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  9. JJ

    I can hear the Republicans chanting in unison: "The poor deserve to put in their mouths only what they can afford. Let them eat cake...."

    May 6, 2011 at 12:45 am |
  10. RS

    Just another excuse for people to "explain" why they're fatties.

    May 5, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Evil Grin

      I suppose it's better than certain people trying to condemn people they don't know in a lame attempt to explain why they're terminally ignorant.

      May 5, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Flippity Flappity

      I bet you can't "explain" why your lack of compassion is due to the fact that you flush your brain every time you take a dump.

      May 5, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  11. theBuckWheat

    I don't see any accounting for the widespread practice in rural areas and small towns of having personal gardens. In the rural area I live in, more than half the homes have them. This program has all the hallmarks of yet another flimsy excuse to borrow money from China to buy votes here (and to enslave my children in the process). When we can no longer borrow and print the money government spends, where will this program fit in our priorities? Ahead of or behind funding NPR?

    May 5, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  12. Goober Grape@Naysayers

    Keep in mind, this comes from the same government that created the BMI ratios.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  13. kaburi

    I live in NC, southeast of Charlotte, and according to the map I'm in the center of a pink triangle of food desert. I never thought of my area as a food desert, being that there are at least four grocery stores within the bounds of the triangle (the furthest being the Walmart ~2.5 miles from my house, which you get to by driving past the Bi-Lo and the Harris Teeter and turning at the intersection with the Food Lion). I assume the results are skewed because we're a suburban area with no mass transit.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  14. Farhibide

    Wow. I live in rural Pennsylvania and I am stupefied by some of the nearby areas they have marked as "food deserts." True, they may live 10-15 miles from a supermarket, but they are well connected to them by major roadways. They're also surrounded by farmers markets, produce stands and privately-owned butcher shops that sell food for a fraction of supermarket prices. Many people grow, can and/or freeze their own food.

    The map needs to be adjusted to take into account the prevalence of agriculture in an area, the presence of major roadways/households with vehicles, and the availability of fresh food from other sources.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Jerv@Farhibide

      And we have a winner! Thank you so much. You just made the exact point that 2 was trying to make to "Lifelong Vegetarian." A positive, common sense recommendation to make the map better.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  15. Jim Bob

    There is something wrong with the methodology. Look at the St.Paul/Minneapolis area where the Mississippi and Minnesota River converge. The large pink food desert covers historic Fort Snelling, Fort Snelling State Park, the International Airport, a National Cemetary and the Mall of America. How many people live in that area? Very very few. There is a Super Target on the west side of the airport property, but I bet that one-third of the people living in the pink area (33 out of 100?) live more than a mile from SuperTarget. The map is misleading in low population areas within a metropolitan area.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  16. Grumpster

    No link? WTF?

    May 4, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  17. Sarakate

    There's a big chunk right outside my town – that also happens to be in a large area of Amish/Mennonite settlements. I hardly think it's a "food desert" – they have transportation, but it's horses, and I'll be they don't count. They're also probably considered low income. But they absolutely are not eating junky icky food...they're probably healthier than I am!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  18. Amit

    And again they forget to display Alaska and Hawaii in the map

    May 4, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  19. Judy

    This map is a big load of excrement!! It shows nothing of value or truth.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  20. lynngonzales44

    Very true that major brands do give out samples on their products, search online for "123 Get Samples" we just got ours today. You wont need CC.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:38 am |
  21. snperry

    This article is weird! My area is listed as a food "desert" but half of my county is woods and wilderness so I'm sure some low income people who live farther out don't have a major grocery store nearby. I don't think this map portrays accurately what is meant by a "food desert."

    May 3, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  22. REV Wright

    Something tells me black crime and shop lifting has to do with corporations withdrawing from Deeeeeeetroit, Camden, Newark, East St. Louis, Oakland, Harlem, and other black Harares [Zimbabwe, USA].

    Now the taxpayers are going to be bent over and raped to pay for Democrat votes again.

    Sad...........Atlas has Shrugged, and Wesley Mouch Obama is going to destroy America.

    May 3, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  23. ruby2sday

    Dang, I'm smack dab in the middle of one huge food desert. (I'm also on the edge of one big real desert too.) 17 miles from the closest grocery store. I sure hope they get drilling more oil so I can pay for the gas to go to the store. I think "Raptor57" has hit the nail right square on the head.

    May 3, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
  24. Reality Bites

    Gotta love the Feds, urged on by Michelle, for once again wasting my hard earned tax dollars on useless malarkey. According to this map, one of the wealthiest, most exclusive neighborhoods in my town is a "food desert". The only way to stop this foolishness is to stop giving these government idiots any money.

    May 3, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
    • JJ

      Yah, much better to hand money over to the ethical deep thinkers on Wall Street...

      May 6, 2011 at 12:46 am |
  25. LaRofromNorthAL

    Keep in mind that the population & income data used here is from the 2000 Census. Why ? Because the 2010 Census did not collect income info, & the 1-, 3-, and 5-year American Community Survey data that was meant to replace it is ridiculously error-prone. The markets are from a 5-year-old database. This is not up-to-the-minute data by any stretch. Too bad. Would have been nice to see something meaningful.

    May 3, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  26. The Witty One@the haters

    I think instead of ripping this apart, you should applaud at least the effort to make sure everyone is getting healthy and affordable food. I'm sure you are correct in saying that a lot of the people in those pink areas have their own source of food and it may even be healthier but not everyone in those areas does. Having an initiative to get people the most basic of necessities can't be called a misplaced or a bad idea.

    According to the "Let's Move" website 23 millions americans, including 6.5 million children live in these food deserts.

    Now lets say that half of those have their own source of sustainable, healthy food. That still leaves 11.5 million including 3.25 millions children without access to healthy food. Instead of looking at the "pink" on the map, why don't you look at starving kids in our country and get down off your high horse? At least Michelle Obama is doing something positive with her time in the white house.

    May 3, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Lifelong Vegetarian

      Congrats! Way to miss the point of objecting to labeling sparsely populated rural areas as food deserts.

      Let me spell it out for you. By labelling rural areas as food deserts by artificial criteria such as access to a grocery store, people become misinformed about not just access to food, but to lifestyles that may adequately counterbalance the supposed lack of access. By providing a map that makes the issue of access to food to poverty in monetary terms appear to be equal, the USDA has badly crippled their efforts to get help to all those people who actually do need access to groceries and fresh food. Instead, this map makes it look like large chunks of people in the U.S. are having issues that they're simply not having in reality.

      Look at Cherry County, Nebraska. This county is larger than Connecticut, Delaware, or Rhode Island, but has a population of around 6100. No, I'm not missing any zeroes. Six thousand one hundred people. One tiny city, several little towns, and a few unincorporated areas. How friggin realistic is it to have a grocery store for every 10 square miles? Seriously!

      But by listing this area as a food desert, it takes away from thousands or hundreds of thousands of people in Chicago and other large cities who are forced to buy their groceries at small stores that don't have produce or access to anything but junk food. Those are the people we need to help, not a bunch of farmers who live 11 miles from town and have been raising a reasonable percent of their own food long before Michelle Obama started pushing gardening and healthy eating.

      So your high horse? Might want to climb off.

      May 3, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
      • Meat Eater@Lifelong Vegetarian

        Sheesh, lighten up already! It's just an article on a food blog. Go eat a steak, you might feel better.

        May 3, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
      • Lifelong Vegetarian

        Nawh, no steak for me. I don't like puking, I don't like bound up bowels, and I don't like the taste. But I'll be glad to eat an omlet with lots of feta, Baco-Bits (why, yes, they're vegetarian), and cheddar. Oh, and a big glass of chocolate milk.

        Why, yes, Meat Eater, you did assume that I've never tried meat or that I have an ethical issue with eating meat. You'd be wrong on both accounts. And when this "just a food blog" is on a widely read news site, it's never "just" anything.

        May 3, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
      • The Witty One@Lifelong Vegetarian

        Thanks for spelling it out for me! Now let me correct your spelling.

        Your argument is a sweeping generalization. Just because you grew up on a dairy farm, you assume that all people in those areas must live like you. I certainly don't know about all of these populations and I assume you don't either.

        I also agree with the fact that inner city kids don't have access to quality foods. This is also something else Michelle Obama is working on.

        So I don't think that I missed your point. I am not objecting to your comments about how the majority of the pink locations on the map are rural. I wasn't even disagreeing with you! What I am saying it that I think this initiative is a step in the right direction and instead of ripping it down, why don't you work to build it up? So maybe you missed my point.

        Neigh.

        May 3, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
      • Happy Omnivore@Lifelong Vegetable

        "Nawh, no steak for me. I don't like puking, I don't like bound up bowels,"

        From your comments, I'm thinkin' your concern about bound up bowels has noooooooooothing to do with whether or not you eat meat.

        May 4, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  27. Vorlauf

    Interestingly, 3 of the largest 'food deserts' are Oregon's Lake, Harney, and Malheur counties. All 3 are in the 2/3 of Oregon that is desert and are some of the country's largest and most sparsely populated counties outside of Alaska. None of these counties have cities of any considerable size or population. The economy is primarily agriculture based, with people raising, purchasing, or hunting their meat and produce locally. Incomes are low, but folks in these counties are more self-sufficient and don't need as high an income as city folks.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • LaRofromNorthAL

      It certainly would've been useful if they filtered out low-population-density areas. According to this data, I grew up in a "food-desert" area ( and there are more food markets there now than when I was a kid), but you would not have known it looking at my folks' pantry. It, and three freezers, were chock full of amazing foods raised & preserved/frozen by our family. Grocery store trips were for soap & such.

      May 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • kake79

      Yeah, the map is pretty misleading. There is a large "food desert" near me that is a national forest. How can you count a place where no one lives or can build commercial business?

      June 22, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  28. liam1234

    It sounds great, but if you visit the green website at http://www.fourgreensteps.com/marketplace/, you will be surprised.

    May 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  29. Heather Jeane

    I've spent time in some of these "food deserts." The food I was served was fresh, plentiful and healthy. I'd be FAR more concerned the poor in urban areas than rural. They have no place to grow their own food and unlike the rural farmers, are not able to drive a large vehicle to a store out of walking distance to stock up. I can't imagine trying to drag a week's worth of food home on a sub or city bus either!

    May 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  30. @vegetarians

    Eat a tomato and shit your brains out!

    May 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  31. Lifelong Vegetarian

    Oh, and it's a little hard to justify a grocery store within 10 miles of people when the population per square mile of land is often zero, and where there is someone living on that square mile, the population is one family of 2-5 people. Yeah... realism. There's a reason for the lies, d*%n lies, and statistics cliche. Just because the numbers spit out a result doesn't mean that result is practical or accurate when how people actually live gets involved.

    May 3, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  32. Alison

    Ummm ... many (if most) of the "food deserts" marked have very low population densities, and those folks either A) grow and / or butcher their own, B) stockpile when they run into town (about once a week), or C) both. These are folks that are not dependent on grocery stores for food–they provide the food for grocery stores to sell.

    May 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  33. Leslie

    Seriously! This is where our tax dollars are going! Given today's economy I would like to think we are investing our money in things that are more important right now. Canned veggies,,,,boohoo, no one is starving on canned veggies.

    May 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  34. Lifelong Vegetarian

    Re: Low access areas. At a glance, most of those places marked on the map are extremely rural areas with widly scattered towns and small cities, not a lot of population, not a lot of transportation infrastructure, primarily agricultural areas, and/or are on less than hospitable land (desert, sandhills, etc.). While factually accurate about the access to grocery stores, etc., the reality of these places is that the people there not only expect to have low access, but plan their trips to town around that fact. Also, they're probably supplimenting with home-grown foods, and they have full deep freezes from various sources.

    I know because I grew up on a dairy farm located in one of those pretty pink boxes. That's how we did things, and it was no where near as horrific as the tone of this study and this article make it out to be. Rural life is vastly different than urban, and the whole "food desert" thing is just another indicator of how far apart these lifestyles are. USDA needs to not fearmonger quite so much about rural life. That, or they need to actually do more than number count. The researchers might be surprised as to exactly how healthy it is to have wild fruit, wild greens, and other such things as part of the diet.

    May 3, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • abbyful

      Agreed! I grew up in an area that is "pink" as well, but there's no shortage of food! It's a farming/ranching community, not a food desert. People grow/raise/hunt their own food, and make a trip to the grocery store once a week. It's a way of life. The grocery store may be 15 miles away, but it only takes 15 minutes to get there because there's no traffic congestion.

      May 3, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  35. Evil Grin

    My area does not seem to be that desert-y, there are a lot of local farmers here, and the soil seems to be pretty good. Even someone like me can grow a tomato or some lettuce. But I feel bad for those who are caught in areas where the best they can expect are some slimy canned veggies and junk food. Looking at this map, that's quite a lot of the country.

    May 3, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Jerv@EG

      I was thinking the exact same thing, "that's quite a lot of the country."

      May 3, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Lifelong Vegetarian

      Acutually, a vast majority of the pink is rural areas, and while the income may be lower than some artificial standard that the USDA put up, they're not eating junk food and canned peas. Rural food deserts aren't anything like urban ones. They're no more lacking in fresh food than anyplace else. A lot of times these people are picking fresh wild fruit and canning/freezing/drying them for future use. They're eating frest wild greens, planting their own gardens for vegetables, planting their own fruit trees and eating the produce that they've made. Perhaps they're getting local food from other people who grow extra and need to get rid of it. That joke about drive-by eggs deposited in the mail boxes for people? It's a reality. Drive into town, stock up on groceries, get caught up on the gossip over a cup of coffee and chit-chat with friends, go home–once a week. A lot of these people wouldn't consider themselves in a food desert. They'd probably laugh and offer you fresh baked bread.

      May 3, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
      • Chris

        Most of those food deserts are real Deserts. You just cant decide to grow lettuce and tomatoes in Eastern Oregon, Nevada, Utah, or Arizona one day. I'm pretty sure one of the pink counties in Oregon does not have a growing season. They get frost every month of the year in the most populated town.

        It takes a pretty concerted effort to grow vegetables in what is either wheat or cattle country.

        May 6, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • Salt Grain

      I am in a food "desert". but a lot of areas are rural.. where local grocery stores are less prevalent... often with poorer people who can't afford to live in more expensive counties.. I see them spending their ebt money at the food lion.. they are not as desperate as one would make you think

      May 3, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • raptor57

      i smell the begining of another- waste my tax dollar social program.

      May 3, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
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