food access

Data Viz: Updates to SNAP and Farmers Market Data

For me, new data is like a new pair of shoes – I still find utility in the old ones, but the new ones give me a feeling of opportunity and I immediately begin thinking of all the new things I can do with them.

Last week, Community Commons updated three highly-utilized indicators:

  • Farmers’ Markets Accepting SNAP (USDA)
  • SNAP-Authorized Retailers Access, Rate per 10,000 Population by Tract (USDA)
  • SNAP Authorized Retailers (USDA)

These indicators are often used by communities to highlight access, or lack of access, to healthy and affordable options, to identify gaps in service areas, and to inform site development for farmers markets, transportation routes, and other economic development-related projects.

Explore the updated data in the maps below. Click each map to open them in the Community Commons Maproom and to zoom to your community.

Click the map to zoom to your community.

Click the map to zoom to your community.

Click the map to zoom to your community.

Are you using SNAP or farmers market data to make change in your community? Share your projects in the comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Partner Spotlight: Partnership for a Healthier America’s Place-Based Mapping Tool

Collecting and analyzing data can be a tedious task, one that requires significant amounts of time and research capacity, even in an ever-evolving technical era. As The Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) continues to expand their private sector partnerships and scale their initiatives, they discovered a need to be able to manage more partner and community data, more quickly. Doing so would amplify their ability to provide more timely decision support, prioritize areas of greatest need, and best match strategies to community needs.

Problem, meet solution.

Place-Based map built upon the Vulnerable Populations Footprint

To maximize resources and potential for impact, PHA partnered with Institute for People Place and Possibility (IP3) and the University of Missouri Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems (CARES) to develop the Place-Based Mapping (PBM) tool.

The PBM tool provides a powerful way to analyze data related to poverty, obesity, and vulnerable populations specific to a particular geographic area. Using the architecture of the Community Commons Vulnerable Populations Footprint (VPF), the PBM tool combines partner locations and key equity indicators to inform a comprehensive community indicator report, a demographic summary, and a series of maps and other data visualizations showcasing a community’s assets and opportunities. PHA Hub members are also able to upload their own data to create new footprints – a solution which supports real-time and hyper-contextualized decision making.

Click the map to zoom to your area.

The PBM tool ensures that PHA and its partners are able to identify the most vulnerable geographies for their interventions. Business partners, in particular, have found value in the PBM tool. They see it as a way to enhance their understanding of community needs, evaluate their potential impact, and keep public good and data-informed decision making at the forefront of their work. With organizations like Kwik Trip and Sheetz, businesses that make commitments with PHA agree to a collective goal of transforming the marketplace – making retailers more equitable, accessible, and focused on community health.

As stated by their Chairman, James Gavin III,

That’s why PHA places a special emphasis on reaching the children who live in neighborhoods that are not only disproportionately affected by obesity, but least likely to have the means to combat it. Our staff is trained to structure and direct partner commitments to ensure they reach those geographic places and socioeconomic groups that are the most challenged.

PHA is devoted to working with the private sector to ensure the health of our nation’s youth by helping to solve the childhood obesity crisis. PHA brings together public, private, and nonprofit leaders to broker meaningful commitments and develop strategies to end childhood obesity. Most importantly, PHA ensures that commitments are made and kept by working with unbiased, third parties to monitor and publicly report on the progress their partners are making to show everyone what can be achieved by working together. 

The development of the PHA Place Based Mapping Tool  was made possible through support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation COGIS Project.

To learn more about the PBM tool, contact

Three Ways to Improve Access to Healthy Food

More than forty million Americans live in food insecure households – that’s 13 percent of US households, including 13 million children. Over the last decade we have seen an uptick in communities taking action to not only alleviate food insecurity, but to increase access to healthy foods. From farmers markets to mobile markets, communities are adopting strategies that are the most appropriate and effective for their residents. While it is still a learning process for many communities to determine how to serve all their residents in the most efficient way, several promising strategies are being implemented. Three popular strategies are outlined below.

Mobile Markets

Mobile markets are cropping up around the US as a strategy to increase access to healthy food, particularly in food deserts. They essentially “meet you where you’re at”, often serving areas that have poor access to super markets and grocery stores- or areas that simply lack access to healthy food options. The communities they serve tend to have residents with a lower socio economic status and are more burdened by obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

While people who shop at mobile markets do eat significantly more fruits and vegetables than non shoppers, there are some general knowledge and logistical gaps that need to be filled in order to be more effective in the communities they serve. First, there needs to be better strategy of raising awareness of the mobile market in communities, along with convenient locations and hours of operation.

Second, customers need to be education on what a serving is, how many servings of fruits and veggies should be eaten each day, how to cook fruits and veggies, and perhaps most importantly a strategy to combat the perception that fruits and veggies are unaffordable, luxury foods. Mobile markets that accept SNAP and WIC nutrition assistance programs will have an even greater impact on access.

A great example of a mobile food market is the Hamilton County Mobile Food Market in Chattanooga, TN.

Click image to zoom to specific area or to create your own map.

Food policy councils 

Food policy councils advise state and local governments on policy to improve access to healthy, affordable food. They develop food policies and programs that directly impact individuals’ access to healthy foods. While they may not directly increase consumption of healthy foods, they are responsible for taking actions that lead to the development of community and school gardens, farm-to-institution programs, increasing enrollment in food assistance programs, and creating new forms of insurance for small, local producers. They are a great example of collaborative efforts among nutrition, health, education, agriculture, policy, and business stakeholders.

The Colorado Food Policy Network has grown to include more than 18 food policy councils around the state. Community Commons has supported their efforts to collect, visualize, and analyze state, regional, and local data. Their Colorado Food Systems Hub on Community Commons allows food policy councils to connect and collaborate so they can better coordinate efforts around the state. The Colorado Movement Map visualizes where and what kind of work each council is doing.

Click image to zoom to specific area

Farmers markets, community supported agriculture, farm-to-institution

These programs not only increase access to healthy food throughout the community, they support local producers. Right now, people are very engaged in buying local, organic foods. In fact, it’s a market that has been growing 40-60 percent each year. It’s growth that is seen in rural and urban parts of America. People trust local produce more, and want the satisfaction of supporting local producers. That’s why farmers markets, CSAs, and farm-to-institution programs are popular outlets. While farmers we are seeing a peak in farmers markets, we’re also seeing an increase in more farm-to-institution programs (i.e. schools, hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores) and food hubs. Food hubs increased 288 percent from 2007 to 2012! So we’re seeing many communities integrate local produce into schools and businesses and farmers finding more cost-effective venues to sell their products- the sign of a maturing market.

Mobile markets, food-to-institution programs and food policy councils are great ways to increase access to healthy foods and support local producers. Research on effectiveness and best practices for implementation for some of these strategies are still formative. However, the fact that we’re seeing a growth in mobile food markets and local producers expanding to more businesses and institutions is a promising sign that healthy food is becoming more accessible to America’s most vulnerable populations.

Helping Families in Poverty by Speeding Delivery of SNAP Benefits

This article was written by Julia B. Isaacs. It was originally published in June of 2016 on Urban Wire.

For families living in poverty, an unexpected dip in income or spike in expenses can mean having the phone cut off, being unable to pay for prescriptions, or running out of food. Cash-strapped families often turn to emergency savings, credit cards, friends and relatives, payday loans, food banks, or government agencies for help.

Government agencies play multiple roles in addressing poverty and improving opportunity. While some programs target the long-term reduction of poverty, others play a vital role in stabilizing families facing the fluctuations of the low-wage labor market. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) is one of those stabilizing programs.

SNAP Households

Community Commons addition: Maps like these help visually tell the story of a community. Click on the map and zoom to your location to see this data for your area or visit our Map Room to create your own maps.

About 60 percent of SNAP applicants with children reported experiencing some kind of emergency during the application process, according to surveys in three states. And more than half of those experiencing emergencies, or 36 to 40 percent of all applying families, reported that the emergencies could have been avoided or reduced if they had gotten their benefits more quickly.

Federal legislation requires that agencies deliver SNAP benefits within seven days to destitute families with little or no income and within 30 days to other eligible families. Yet, people “come into [social service agency] lobbies because they [are] hungry now…not 30 days from now,” an Idaho official told Urban Institute researchers.

Idaho aims to provide same-day service—meaning that clients get SNAP benefits the same day they apply—to at least 70 percent of SNAP applicants.

Idaho was one of six states participating in the foundation-funded Work Support Strategies (WSS) Initiative, a partnership of state agencies and national technical assistance experts working to streamline and integrate delivery of SNAP, Medicaid, child care subsidies, and other work support benefits. The initiative’s goal was helping families access and keep benefits to support their work and well-being.

SNAP Access

Community Commons addition: Maps like these help visually tell the story of a community. Click on the map and zoom to your location to see this data for your area or visit our Map Room to create your own maps.

Over five years of planning and implementation, the percentage of SNAP applications with same-day service doubled or tripled in three of the six WSS states—Colorado, Illinois, and Rhode Island went up from about 10-15 percent of applications to 20-33 percent—and increased marginally in Idaho from 71 to 72 percent. North and South Carolina did not track same-day service, but South Carolina saw an increase in the percentage of SNAP applicants served within 10 days.

State and local workers in several states told researchers that many clients expressed surprise and gratitude when they found out they could get their benefits that day.

Percent of SNAP Applications Processed Same Day in Four States

In addition to speeding up SNAP benefits for needy families, the WSS states also made strides in enrolling more dually eligible people in SNAP and Medicaid, streamlining verification policies for SNAP and other programs, implementing updated technologies, redesigning waiting areas and business practices, and reducing client waiting time in lobbies.

Improving benefit delivery may have only modest impacts on reducing poverty. Yet, the speedy and efficient delivery of benefits can help stabilize families struggling to pay their monthly bills despite fluctuating earnings, supporting their efforts to move up and out of poverty.

Check out the SNAP-Ed Report on Community Commons and view indicators like Water Consumption and Meals Eaten at Home.



Community Commons addition: Reports like these help visually tell the story of a community. Click on the reports to see this data for your area.

Planning for Food Access in Community Development

America is facing a food crisis. Each day, the average American consumes processed foods that are full of added sugars, salts, fats, additives, and chemicals like pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. In fact, these ultra-processed foods make up 50% of Americans’ diets. And we’re seeing the impact diets like this have on our health. It’s well known that poor diets can lead to chronic diseases like COPD, obesity and diabetes.

While we are seeing a rise in these diseases across the country, it’s also issues at the community level that impact access to healthy, nutritious foods-and turn it around. So, what can we do at the community level to plan for better access to healthy foods? We must first understand the issues related to its production, misleading packaging, distribution locally, and geographical and socioeconomic disparities.

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Click image to see a specific area.


In terms of production, companies have been using government-subsidized foods in their production processes, like corn, soy and wheat, to maximize profits. This allows foods to be processed to the point of losing their nutritional value. Also, as was stated above, the production process now includes additives that result in hazardous health consequences.

One approach to solving this would be people being meticulous with the foods that they buy, but for access and expense’s sake, there are other alternatives. For example, community gardens have gained popularity over the past few years, and have been known to encourage community involvement by locals to grow their own fresh produce. Farmer’s markets, in a similar sense, encourage locals to purchase fresh produce from their own farmers, stirring a flow of money in the economy. In San Antonio’s Southtown neighborhood, community members, landowners, and the city council banded together to establish community gardens. The gardens have not only brought fresh food to low-income residents, but also helped establish pride in their community.

Food Packaging

Another issue at hand is the use of scientific jargon on food packaging. This prevents the average consumer from properly identifying the components of the products they buy. If they understood what the contents of processed foods meant, then they would be able to make more health-conscious decisions. This can be seen in a recent FDA readjustment of food labels. This makes the contents of packaged food more transparent, and allows the public to be better  informed on what they’re consuming.


As for distribution, companies can only transport food to where it’s being sold. Many factors can contribute to a limited access to healthy foods, beginning with geographical disparities. Rural areas are more prone than, let’s say, cities and suburbs, to have food deserts – areas where access to healthy foods is either limited or nonexistent. These areas, in fact, have more access either to processed foods that are hefty in preservatives from stores, or more access to fast food chains. Individuals living there do have access to food, but the nutrient content of their food does not allow for proper nourishment. These problems are not impossible to solve. Building supermarkets in small towns not only provides corporations with a new client to distribute to and locals with healthy food, but employs workers locally as well.

Taking into account the fact that such an investment requires time, projects that could be initiated in the meantime include the development of community gardens and farmer’s markets, as mentioned above. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department came up with the innovative idea to take the food to the people. With its Chattanooga Mobile Food Market, they are able to reach community members living in food deserts and areas with little access to healthy, affordable fresh food.

Disparities that Impact Access

A similar case can be seen with socioeconomic disparities, where people (more specifically minority groups) living in low-income areas, have limited access to healthy foods. This can be due to the fact that healthy options are more expensive than processed foods, making unhealthy foods more favorable to buy. Grocery stores may also be located far away and making the journey to them consumes more time and money than people are willing to invest. They may be busy, work long hours, have long commute time, and in some cases, not have the transportation necessary to access places that offer healthy, affordable foods.

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Click image to see a specific area.

For communities that want to improve their health and food access, cooperation is key. Neither the community gardens nor the farmers markets nor the health awareness can be implemented with the efforts of a single individual. If locals agree to organize and develop projects together, as well as cooperate with outside contributors if deemed necessary, then they will know success no matter how small the scale.

Aging in America Part 1: Challenges for Senior Citizens

September is Healthy Aging Month. To help raise awareness we are featuring a two part series that focuses on the unique challenges aging adults in the US face, and initiatives that support them in living healthy, active lives. 

Did you know roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 everyday? Did you know, currently, more than 25 million of them live at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level? While millions had good jobs where they could save and invest in 401(k) plans, others impacted by job loss, the financial crisis, or other circumstances find themselves relying solely on Social Security- which on average, is $1,262 a month. That wouldn’t even cover rent in some of the US’s coastal cities.

Budgeting on this amount when you have the added expense of food, transportation, and medical bills, the “Golden Years” of retirement become anything but, for millions. With nearly 1 in 10 seniors (aged 65+) living in poverty it can be a challenge to get by just day to day.

Below is a map showing poverty levels among senior citizens in Pittsburgh, PA- one of America’s most senior-dominated cities.

Click image to see specific area.

Click image to see specific area.

The struggles associated with poverty are felt in every corner of the US, but for seniors, it’s a unique struggle in a country built around the young and mobile.

Lack of transportation

Transportation is one of those overlooked issues for seniors. For many of us, we simply get in our car or hop on a bike when we want to go somewhere. For seniors it’s not that easy- and often comes at an additional cost. Seniors on a fixed income must not only keep up with the cost of rising housing, medical costs, and food, but also the cost that comes with not having your own transportation.

Many seniors don’t want to feel like they are a burden so often forgo asking friends and relatives for a ride; others simply can’t afford the bus fare or live in areas where bus schedules are limited or nonexistent.


Click image to to see specific area.

Click image to see specific area.

For those with frequent medical appointments it’s a costly inconvenience that can affect their health. Which is why it is good to see how some hospitals are coming up with innovative ways to make sure their patients don’t miss an appointment by partnering with Uber and Lyft.

Rising cost of rent

We all know housing costs are rising across the board- for everyone. The lack of affordable housing impacts everyone from single parents working two to three part-time jobs to older adults.

Most seniors spend 35 percent of their income on housing. If they are just living on government benefits like Social Security, their housing is likely taking up at least 40 percent of their income (30 percent is generally the recommended threshold). This isn’t necessarily adequate housing either. In some housing units living conditions could be overcrowded, in need of serious maintenance, and/or lack plumbing.

Click image to see specific area.

Click image to see specific area.

For aging seniors in need of assistance with daily activities, options are grossly limited as well. Assisted living facilities aren’t always a viable option due to the expense- averaging more than $3,000/month. Fortunately, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has counselors that help seniors explore housing options, whether it’s continuing to live at home, finding approved housing units, or learning how to protect against housing discrimination.

Health care costs

With the senior population growing- expected to number more than 87 million by 2050- health care will become even more impacted than it is now. Because most seniors are eligible for Medicare, and some for Medicaid, the government pays for most of seniors’ medical expenses.

However, out-of-pocket costs are still high for seniors. To put in perspective, it’s estimated that a 65 year old couple retiring in 2013 would need to save $240,000 to cover future medical expenses– not including long-term care. Premiums, deductibles, co-pays, out-of-pocket prescription drugs, and non covered items like hearing aids and glasses are calculated into that cost. And on average, Medicare beneficiaries spend 15 percent of their household income on health care costs, that’s three times more than non Medicare households.

Access to nutritional foods

Food insecurity is a serious issue among seniors. Seventeen percent of Feeding America’s clients are seniors. And in the US nearly 5.5 million seniors are food insecure, 1.2 million of them live alone. 

Click image to see specific area.

Click image to see specific area.

Most seniors report that the greatest benefit of aging is having more time to spend with loved ones. Still, there are challenges millions of seniors contend with on a daily basis, which is why it is all the more important to focus on what we can do at the local level, together and as individuals. Through the MetLife Foundation, communities all around the country are reimagining ways to not only keep seniors mentally and physically healthy, but also strengthen their connection to the community- which is key.

It’s a strategy that fits into the overall movement of transforming the places we live, work, and play into vibrant, connected communities where we consider the needs of all our citizens, from kids walking to school to young and middle-aged adults biking to work to enabling seniors’ ability to get to medical appointments or activities around town.

Stay-tuned for our upcoming “Aging in the US Part 2” post that will feature initiatives from around the country that are supporting aging adults in living healthy, active lives.


Member Spotlight: Alleviating Food Insecurity in Rural North Carolina

sandi rice manna

Over the last 5 years, MANNA FoodBank’s food distribution has increased from 7 million pounds annually to now, more than 15 million pounds. With food insecurity increasing across the country, foodbanks like MANNA must continually look for partnerships that help them get “meals on the ground” wherever needed in their 16 county network. In her AmeriCorps Vista position, Sandi Rice was tasked with identifying underserved areas in MANNA’s western North Carolina network. For the next 7 months Rice spent time creating census tract level data maps of children living in poverty and found that the data also correlated with child food insecurity rates. The result is an impressive series of maps that have not only helped MANNA identify underserved areas, but also help inform their decisions on what partners to reach out to in those areas.

Hi Sandi. Thanks for talking with us! Could you start off by telling us a little bit about MANNA FoodBank?

MANNA Food Bank is a non-profit organization that is affiliated with Feeding America, the National Food Bank Association, and MANNA FoodBank, is one of seven food banks in North Carolina. We’re located in Asheville, North Carolina and serve the sixteen western North Carolina counties. Buncombe County, which is where Asheville is, has about 250,000 people and it goes down dramatically after that, as far as counties are concerned. Last fiscal year – so 2014/2015, MANNA provided over 15 million pounds of food to those in need.

We serve approximately 240+ partner agencies in those communities- most of which are food pantries and other food sites, whether it’s a soup kitchen or a senior center that provides assistance to low-income individuals and families.

Can you talk some about food access issues in your region? What populations are most impacted by food insecurity?

Well, in North Carolina, what we’re seeing are people who are at 185% of the poverty level and that in particular, are families with children who qualify for FNS, food stamps, SNAP- also poverty among the elderly, 65+. But rural communities have those living in extreme poverty. We have one entire county, Clay County, where the childhood poverty for the entire county is above 55%.

Is that just due to lack of good employment opportunities, low wages?

Yes. Rural communities in western North Carolina are not industry hubs. There have always been rural farming communities where people were self-sufficient; most were farmers. And it hasn’t changed much in several decades.

So would you say you have seen an increase in food insecurity in the regions MANNA serves or about the same?

MANNA, as far as food insecurity and demand, is like many other agencies serving those who are dealing with food security issues since the call out box 1economic downturn in 2008; things really got difficult for many people in our service area. And there just hasn’t been a pickup among lower income individuals regaining or rebounding as quickly as some others might have. In the last five-seven years, MANNA has doubled its output of food. So we went, in a five-year period, from approximately 7 million pounds of food product distributed to more than 15 million pounds last year.

Can you talk a little bit about your role with MANNA FoodBank and how you’ve used Community Commons to address food insecurity?

I was finishing up my Masters in Public Health and needed an internship and was fortunate because MANNA had an open position for an AmeriCorps Vista position which allowed me to do some capacity improvement work, as well as my capstone project with MANNA. What MANNA
wanted to see was where were the areas of need across the 16 county- network that were underserved or not served by the MANNA network. So, that was the beginning of me working on capacity improvement and my capstone project and was able to do so using Community Commons. The data that you guys provide, along with statistical programs, brought several key areas of need to light.

In school, I was able to do something really incredible for MANNA FoodBank. I was able to correlate childhood food insecurity and childhood poverty numbers for our network so that we could drill down from the county level for the 16 counties we serve. Now MANNA has a tool that allows them to look at census tract level data in each of the county’s service areas, and make more informed decisions about resource allocations.

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Explore the service area data maps in more detail by clicking the image.

That’s wonderful! Sounds like you’ve really been able to maximize the potential of Community Commons’ tools.

It’s huge because here in Buncombe County, the childhood poverty rate is approximately 25%. But when you start drilling down into the census tract data, looking at the poverty level you get an entirely different picture. Those numbers are correlated; the poverty level will correlate with childhood food insecurity level. So in my neighborhood, which is a fairly middle class, working class, mixed neighborhood, the childhood poverty rate is 74%. You look at that and you go ‘oh wow.’ The childhood food insecurity rate for Buncombe County is 24.9% but if you use that corollary data, you know it’s much different.

Has this had any impact on how MANNA identifies and connects with partners?

What MANNA is now doing with my research- and much to the great credit of Community Commons- is we are able to pull up maps of our entire 16 call out box 2county network and chart underserved areas where we don’t have a current partner or where there’s not enough service provided in low income areas.

There was one county, that we thought things were pretty good and it turned out that there were areas where childhood poverty that was over 95 percent. It just showed the organization that there was a whole section where there were no MANNA network partners serving that community. So of course that begins to immediately make MANNA start reaching out to try to form new partnerships in that area. It is a higher priority right now.

We actually shared some of what I was able to do and access in Community Commons with the other 6 food banks, just to let them know what capability is out there.

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What would you say the main strength of using Community Commons is?

For me, as a non-computer person, I was going to try to teach myself GIS through ARC or something like that and that just wasn’t happening for me. I’m a nontraditional student in that I am 51 years old and I am not writing a code in any way, shape, or form. So being able to use Community Commons was so applicable and so common sense that it was just easy to go and pull those statistical maps and go ‘oh look at that’ and you know here’s the tools for mapping, making sure we get to map the 16 counties in the agency network. It was user-friendly. A lot of it you could get down to that tract level data for poverty, which was important for me for my correlation. So, for me, Community Commons was just a beautiful tool that I could not have done my research without.

Sounds like you’ve definitely done some incredible things with it so far.

I hope to do more, I really do. I want to do more for the agency. Right now, I’m working for them in call out box 4a contract position doing something entirely different but people keep coming back to me saying, “Hey listen, we’re writing this grant…” The agency has really been excited about this capability, especially our resource development department. They’re very happy with the imagery that Community Commons is able to produce. You see one of your maps in full color, it’s sobering when you look at it and you’ve got the statistical data behind it to know that those are areas where children are going without. It’s just so beautifully, even sadly, but a wonderful tool.

One of the things that I’m hearing is that this has really increased your understanding of the community. Has it increased your efficiency or has it changed how you actually implement any of your programming?

As an agency, we have been going through a capital campaign-building project so we’re moving into new space. There hasn’t been an incredible amount of time to look at how to best utilize the information that we have gained and gathered and put together. But I know for one instance it was able to identify an area where there was a great need and the agency went out to look for a partner to be able to help address some of that need in that community for the children.

I am very interested in that correlation data that you guys calculated out because I think there are other youth cases that might benefit from that.

What I would love to see and I’m thinking about it from the Food Bank standpoint, but I sure would love if more food banks would be able to work with graduate schools to be able to do this kind of statistical analysis. To be able to pinpoint areas within county levels and state levels, to be able to drill down and see what local level data looks like and direct those that need numbers.

I am going to be presenting at a public health conference in the fall and one of the topics for the conference is innovation and public health and how you use innovative techniques in public health to find public health needs and I was asked to present my research. I would love to see more people utilizing this kind of data on a regular basis because it just makes sense.

It was so funny because last fall I was trying to find the best way to map the data that we needed and I was beating my head against the wall and one of the staff here just happened to mention Community Commons after a workshop. She said something about maps and gave me the website for Community Commons, and that’s how I got your website, and when I did it was like the choir began to sing. It required some effort to plot specific points on the maps, but it was a 99% satisfaction on my part by being able to use it as effectively as we have and moving forward as an agency, having people’s interest and being able, instead of an Excel spreadsheet. Being able to do the mapping, it’s much more of an effective tool.

What’s great is that you’ve created a framework other food banks and community organizations can learn from. What’s the most significant impact your research and the tools have had on the work MANNA does?

MANNA FoodBank now has access to areas that they didn’t know about- where the need is great and that correlates; I mean that literally turns into meals on the ground. That means children are getting fed that might not have had access to food before someone used the data and intervened. call out box 3That’s huge! Being able to show someone, here is where your agency is located and this is the area around it, 86% of the children here are living in poverty and food insecure. And someone said, “Well I knew it was bad but I didn’t have a clue it was that bad, we have to work harder.” It’s that anecdotal kind of feedback we’ve gotten just in the last couple months.

What I would love to see in Buncombe County is more people working together with technology, like Community Commons, to really address those core issues, those underlying issues. Hunger is a symptom of a greater issue, which is poverty.

Over the course of a few weeks to a few months, we will have new partnerships that will literally mean children are being fed. I cannot think of any greater compliment to give your group than to say, “Because Community Commons exists, children are being fed in Western North Carolina that weren’t being fed previously”. So, thank you.

Salud America! Launches New Report for Members

SA-logoCommunity Commons and its partner Salud America! are excited to announce the release of a new, custom tool: The Salud Report Card!

This new tool is designed to help identify and communicate what health issues are important to you and your community. The report can be downloaded, printed and shared online making it easy to provide vital information to key figures like local and state PTA, health departments, city leaders, friends, and family.

Know the Issues, Start a Change

Want to begin to address and help solve health issues facing Latinos and their children? Learn more about Salud America! by watching our recent webinar where we first announced the Salud Report Card.

The Salud America! Hub provides comprehensive content, resources, and research; which suggests lots of achievable healthy changes. You can also view some of the many posts about policy changes happening now, or follow the footsteps of the many Salud Heroes making an impact in their communities. For example, building a fitness trail!

Create a Report in Your Area

The Salud Report Card highlights key health issues in your county with data, policy solutions, research, and stories so you can start and support healthy changes for Latino kids. One of the largest hubs on the site, members of Salud America! are able to create these geo-located reports, using mapping and data tools on the provided by Community Commons.

SA! Report Highlights

Simply select your state and county and the Report Card will specifically exam the following in your county:

  • Obesity
  • Food Access
  • Physical Activity Issues
  • Health Equity
  • Vulnerable Populations

The Report Card can help you quickly get data and research in to the hands of those who need it most, and can be used to justify and advocate for grant funding and policy change. Which of the topics in the Report Card stand out in your county? Comment below and tell us what you think of this new tool.

Need Help?

Email Salud America! digital curators, Eric, Lisa, and Amanda at They can answer questions and help you access information and data/maps on many other topics.

For Latinos, Access to Healthy Foods Can Be Sporadic

The following was published on by the National Council of La Raza

Healthy food choices are much easier to make in a supportive food environment—where healthier foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and foods that are less processed, are available and affordable. Too many Hispanic families do not live in a supportive food environment. Counties with large Hispanic populations have a greater proportion of people with limited access to grocery stores (29 percent) than other counties do (21 percent). Latino children and low-income people are at particular risk (see figure to the left).

In a national survey, more than 10 percent of Hispanics reported difficulty in accessing affordable fresh fruits and vegetables—a higher rate than any other racial/ ethnic group. The survey also found that access to fresh produce is linked with better health: people who reported that they were in poor health were four times as likely to face access barriers as people who said they were in excellent health (20 percent vs. 5 percent).

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Research shows that larger chain supermarkets tend to carry more healthy food items, such as produce, at lower prices, while smaller convenience stores tend to carry less fresh produce and more snack foods that are calorie-rich but nutrient-poor. Thus, neighborhood convenience stores typically cannot compensate for the lack of a supermarket that offers healthy foods.

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Hispanic neighborhoods, particularly those in nonurban areas, have almost one-third fewer chain supermarkets but more convenience stores than non-Hispanic neighborhoods. Better access to chain supermarkets has been associated with lower adolescent body-mass index (BMI) scores and lower rates of overweight. Greater access to convenience stores, in contrast, has been associated with higher BMI and frequency of overweight. Latino children have high rates of overweight and obesity and are consequently more likely to develop largely preventable diseases such as diabetes. All signs indicate that any discussion of public health should include a look at the local food environment.

The National Council of La Raza—the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States—works to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans. This story originally appeared on page 26 of the 2016 Hunger Report: The Nourishing Effect.

Member Spotlight: Bringing “Fresh Food for All” to Hamilton County, TN

Today, Community Commons has more than 30,000 members. Whether it’s sharing information on community development projects or creating maps and reports for a grant application, our users find the resources, tools, and collaborative community on the Commons invaluable to their work.  One of our most active users, John Bilderback, has used Community Commons’ John Bilderbacktools for projects since 2009. As the program manager for the Step ONE Program at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department in Tennessee, Bilderback uses the Commons’ mapping and reporting tools to write grants, provide community insights to clients, and to launch initiatives like the Chattanooga Mobile Food Market. Below is our interview with Bilderback on how he uses the Commons and where he sees data visualization technology going in the future.


Thanks for speaking with us, John. Could you tell us about the work you do in Hamilton County?

We work to create a culture of health in Hamilton County where residents choose to eat healthy and be physically active. We do that by identifying barriers to healthy eating and physical activity, whether that be food deserts or access to parks. We work with partners on developing programs they can provide in their neighborhoods, and we also assist with grant writing.

We’re a typical southern city but we have quite a few advantages a lot of cities of similar size do not have. About 30 years ago Chattanooga started to focus on urban redevelopment. I don’t believe it was for health related reasons as much as it was a focus on development. The city developed the river walk and the river park and then began adding places for people to congregate in green spaces. It’s a very forward thinking county and city in terms of those important assets that people can take advantage of without it being an added cost or burden on their finances.

Sounds like Hamilton County has always found innovative, cost-effective ways to improve the community. Why do you choose to use Community Commons’ for many of these projects?

Back in 2009 we were awarded a Healthy Kids Healthy Communities grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I’m a visual person and I had already been using various mapping sites, but they did not have as many user-friendly tools and they weren’t quite as flexible and did not have the really expansive data repository that Commons had. So for me it kind of helped answer a lot of the basic questions we get from community members like “What does my neighborhood look like?” or “What are our specific issues?”. Data can limit a lot of things, but there are ways to utilize it to help people get a better idea of what their neighborhood looks like without just pulling numbers off the top of your head.

We’re a metro health department (332,000 in Hamilton County and 170,000 in Chattanooga) so we keep a significant amount of data, but in general we get quite a few requests from non -profits where they are looking for specific numbers for a grant -writing project or a report. We will share the site with them and utilize to help pull together the current data. It is very convenient in terms of not having to go to 10 or 12 different locations and download through other methods. It’s so much better to be able to go on there, figure out the geography, and just be able to download what you want without sifting through thousands of lines.

Do you use any other features on Community Commons?

The reports are very nice. Being able to confidently identify a couple census tracts as a target area for partners or for ourselves on a grant. We can be at community meetings and questions will come up about comparing different parts of town and do we have a similar distribution of green space and we are able to dive in without spending a lot of time to find some general direction answers. For most of what we do and for our partners’ requests, they want to go in a general direction with confidence so the reports are very helpful giving a wide range of different measures. I think a lot of the socioeconomic measures can be very helpful in terms of targeting geographical space. Our county is one of the largest counties, by size, in Tennessee, so the topography info that’s been added in over the past few months has been very helpful in terms of looking at walkability. It’s a very useful tool and I’ve tried to promote it as much as I can.

Thanks for the promotion! In terms of the data (and there’s A LOT), how have you used it for projects you are working on?

Over the years I’ve amassed quite a database of both parks and green ways, food access, bloc level data and so we have used that to estimate our target population, locations to target, and come up with some specific numbers for grants. We have a lot of pre-measures in terms of half -mile radius of parks and food access at the bloc level. We would not have been able to have this information had we not been using the Commons.

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Click on the map for a closer look or visit our Map Room to create your own.

For our garden project we’ve got a Teaching Garden and we can map gardens across the county and layer over food deserts, so it provides people with an instantaneous visual. 

With the Chattanooga Mobile Market we used Community Commons to really access and identify locations when we were developing the mobile market. We focused specifically on the neighborhoods with community members we had engaged with and a lot of the marketing was word of mouth. Doing work like this with a grant and you all (Community Commons), word’s gotten out about what we’re doing. Even after the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant we’ve done a good job of figuring in a sustainability plan. The YMCA has adopted the market as part of its mission and regular programming it operates. We’re proud partners with the Y.

Overtime you start to build a pretty good set of data that can make grant writing much easier and it allows you to identify the theme you want for the grant that’s in line with what information is being requested for the grant much easier. I’m using it now!

See how Chattanooga Mobile Food Market got its start in the video below.

Data visualization tools have been around for a long time, but it seems like it is becoming much more widely adopted in public health and community development initiatives. Where do you see it going in the future?

You guys have done a good job of making the interface simple. I think as it gets even more streamlined it could go to handheld phones and do geocoding while you’re out on the road and build a map at the same time. For instance with our parks, the maps we have built, to be able to hop on your phone and say hey let’s go to park with the family and then it’s there instantaneously, you can see parks near you and their offerings. 

You’ve got all this info at your fingertips. So from a professional standpoint it’s only limited by the creativity of the people out there using it. So what Commons is doing in meshing a social media platform with a web-based GIS system, you’re creating the laboratory for a lot of this to be done. I don’t have a professional training in GIS systems, but I have a much greater level of comfort using the tools and the ways Commons have it set up, to know that I’m not going to be overstepping the validity boundaries of the data. If I have question’s there are videos to help and I think as interface gets more simple, you’re going find more and more people using it.

I think as non profits start to comprehend what Commons is and how much free information is out there, that’s going to make the quality of the grant writing better and ultimately the program much better and it opens a level of transparency that is important for all organizations.

Four Things to Know About SNAP

March often signals warmer weather and a time when many home gardeners are thinking of what to plant. It’s also National Nutrition Month when many public health and food advocates take the SNAP challenge to raise awareness of food insecurity across the nation.

SNAP, what?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, is a food security program for Americans administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The SNAP challenge is a short-term awareness building exercise where a person lives on the average daily SNAP benefit for a specific amount of time – usually one week or one month. Daily benefits vary from state to state, but fall around $4 per day. From celebrities to congressional leaders, many people have taken the SNAP challenge and found that eating healthy foods can be challenging on a limited budget.

Before 2008, the program was known as the Food Stamp program, and traced its early beginnings back to 1939. It wasn’t until 1964, however, when President Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act that made the program permanent.

While the program has been hotly debated in state and federal legislatures, its power to help families, seniors and people with disabilities, who are vulnerable to food insecurity, has been well documented. A 2012 analysis from the US Census Bureau found that SNAP, “lifted 5 million Americans, including 2.2 million children, out of poverty.”

The SNAP challenge may not be right for you and your organization, but there are other ways to raise awareness while building the programs and services your community needs. Here are 4 tips that can help you improve food security among vulnerable groups in your community.

Tip 1: Understand the need for SNAP in your community.

As of February 5, 2016, over 45 million Americans were participating in the SNAP program. Now it’s even easier to understand SNAP use and the need for food security in your community with the new American Community Survey (ACS) data layer on Community Commons. You can map the percent of households receiving SNAP benefits by Census tract. Having the information on households receiving SNAP benefits, program planners can begin to see where services and community assets may best align to help families in need.

Tip 2: See what food access looks like in your community.

Further, maps like the one below are even handier in light of the USDA’s proposed new rule that would require small retail stores that accept SNAP benefits to offer more food choices. This rule would help expand the food options that small retail stores carry in categories such as fruits and vegetables, breads, poultry, and fish. But where are the small grocery stories in your community? Click the map below and zoom into your community to find out.

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Tip 3: Incentives can help customers and businesses.

As many food security program managers know, SNAP benefits may still not help put more fruits and vegetables in front of families. Grocery stores and corner stores often struggle to offer healthy food options because these items are perishable. One way to help small grocery stores and corner stores offer more healthy food options is to incentivize healthy choices. A recent evaluation of the USDA Health Incentives Pilot found that offering a 30-cent rebate for every SNAP dollar spent on fruits and vegetables increased fruit and vegetable consumption by 26 percent or 0.48 servings per person per day.

Tip 4: Implement SNAP Education Plans for SNAP recipients.

Snap-Ed is the nutrition and obesity prevention component of SNAP. “The goal of SNAP-Ed is to improve the likelihood that persons eligible for SNAP will make healthy food and lifestyle choices that prevent obesity.” The focus is to inspire SNAP recipients to purchase healthier foods and live a more physically active lifestyle so obesity and other chronic diseases can be prevented. Here are some of the USDA’s recommended resources to help achieve SNAP-Ed goals:

Remember, these tips are starting off points to help you bridge existing data sources, policies, and the latest research in nutritional behavioral economics. The SNAP challenge is a great way to raise awareness of the daily realities Americans face and SNAP-Ed Plans provide you the insight and resources you need to inspire change in their lives. Along the way, you just might uncover new ideas or voices that can help you implement effective programs. (And if you’re taking the challenge, don’t forget to let us know!)

How Food Insecurity is Adding to our Health Care Costs

This post was originally published at Urban Wire and was written by Elaine Waxman.

A reader of a nationally syndicated health-advice column recently wrote in asking how to manage the high cost of her husband’s diabetes medications. Her family was having to choose between paying for food or for medicine. What could they do?

The columnists responded with some general advice on diabetes management and suggested the couple ask their doctor to help them economize. Appropriate general medical advice perhaps, but they left out an important point. This couple was clearly struggling with food insecurity—that is, the inability to afford an adequate diet for healthy living—yet the columnists were silent on this half of the dilemma.

Should food insecurity be in a health care provider’s wheelhouse? A growing body of evidence indicates that food insecurity can increase the risk of adverse health outcomes, complicate the ability to manage illness, and increase health care costs for individuals and payers. And for diet-related illnesses like diabetes, food is “medicine,” because the timing and quality of food are integral to better health outcomes.

Although an estimated 49 million Americans struggle with food insecurity at least part of the year, the inability to afford an adequate diet is often left out of conversations about health and health care.

 Community Commons addition: Maps like these visually tell the story of a community and its health. Click on the map and zoom to your location to see this data for your area or visit our Map Room to create your own maps.

Community Commons addition: Maps like these visually tell the story of a community and its health. Click on the map and zoom to your location to see this data for your area or visit our Map Room to create your own maps.

Health care costs are much higher for food-insecure households
A new article published this month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests that this is an important oversight. Because Canada has a single-payer health insurance system, researchers can examine health care costs from a central data source (unlike in the United States, where we have a variety of insurers). Also, Canada provides universal coverage, thus reducing potential selection bias related to health insurance access.

Valerie Tarasuk, along with Craig Gundersen from the University of Illinois (one of the top experts on US food insecurity), and other researchers analyzed data from more than 67,000 adult residents of Ontario who participated in the Canadian Community Health Care Survey. These adults answered household food security questions, using the same scale for assessing food security in the United States, and researchers linked respondents’ food security status to their annual health care expenditures.

The results show that health care costs were significantly higher for food-insecure people, even after adjusting for other socioeconomic and demographic variables. Households with low food security—meaning that they faced uncertain or limited access to a nutritious diet—incurred health care expenses that were 49 percent higher than those who were food secure. And health care costs were 121 percent higher for those with very low food security (those who missed meals or ate smaller meals because they couldn’t afford food).

Higher costs were seen across a variety of health care services, including inpatient hospitalization, emergency room visits, physician services, home health care, and prescription drugs. And as food insecurity increased, so did health care costs.

Food insecurity can contribute to worse health outcomes and higher costs

Earlier US-centered research has already raised the specter that food insecurity can be a key contributor to poorer health outcomes and higher costs. An intriguing 2014 article by Hilary Seligman and colleagues in Health Affairs analyzed inpatient hospitalizations in California from 2000 through 2008 and examined admissions for hypoglycemia, a potentially life-threatening complication of diabetes. Hospitals saw a 27 percent increase in hypoglycemia admissions from lower-income patients in the last week of the month when compared with the beginning of the month, although admissions stayed the same among higher-income patients.

Seligman and colleagues hypothesized that the increase may have been driven by dwindling food supplies at the end of the month for those with limited incomes. Indeed, admission rates stayed the same across the month among lower-income patients for appendicitis, a common condition without a direct tie to food resources. In other research, Seligman and colleagues identified higher rates of diabetes in food-insecure people when compared with their lower-income but food-secure counterparts.

Community Commons addition: Indicator reports offer an excellent opportunity to look at factors that affect the health of your area. Create a Community Health Needs Assessment Full Indicator report by simply entering your state and county (or several counties) and the data automatically populates for you.

Community Commons addition: Indicator reports offer an excellent opportunity to look at factors that affect the health of your area. Create a Community Health Needs Assessment Full Indicator report by simply entering your state and county (or several counties) and the data automatically populates for you.

This research has implications not only for health care providers, but also for food banks that serve those struggling with chronic disease and food insecurity, public health officials concerned with the rise in diet-related disease, and policymakers weighing cuts or other changes to programs like SNAP, which has a demonstrated track record of improving food insecurity.

As the United States continues to debate ways to contain health care costs and improve outcomes, these research insights indicate that failing to confront the intersection of health and hunger may undermine our best efforts to promote better heath in a cost-effective manner.

Elaine Waxman is a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Her expertise includes food insecurity, nutrition and the food assistance safety net, the social determinants of health disparities, and broader issues affecting low-income families and communities. 

Getting the Fat out of ‘Food Deserts’ Will Take Time

This was previously published by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and written by Steve Johnson. The online version of this article has a Community Commons map embedded that allows readers to visualize the areas discussed.

It’s not difficult finding where Chattanooga’s heaviest residents live.

Drive out 38th Street in Alton Park, or swing northeast through Churchville and Bushtown. The houses are smaller and some are likely to be in need of repair. Local businesses tend to be small mom-and-pop affairs, and good luck finding a grocery store.

There’s even a name for these neighborhoods—“food deserts.”

John Bilderback, a nutrition expert with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, has helped prepare a map showing the extent of Chattanooga’s food deserts. He’s plotted the location of grocery stores, and there are obvious blank spots where there is no easy access to fresh produce.

They generally match up with the poorest parts of town, so residents there are not a promising target for grocery stores. And they can’t afford a car to drive to a grocery store.

This map is a great example of how a community added local data to a Commons map and then shared that map with the residents of that area.

This map was created by John Bilderback in a Hub on Community Commons. It’s a great example of how a community added local data to a Commons map and then shared that map with area residents.. Learn more about uploading your own data here.

“Communities with low median income—grocery stores tend to not set up operations in neighborhoods like that,” Bilderback said. “So you have a higher incidence of corner stores and restaurants, but no access to healthy foods.”

Food deserts are not the only reason why low-income people tend to be overweight, but they’re an important reason, say health officials who are trying to address the nation’s growing obesity problem.

Obesity is deadly—and expensive. Its rapid rise is a major factor driving up health care costs nationally.

According to the Campaign to End Obesity, about a third of all cancer deaths are linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition and a lack of physical activity. Obesity is blamed for three-fourths of all high-blood pressure cases. Two-thirds of all adults with Type 2 diabetes are overweight. And, per capita, medical spending for obese people is $2,741 greater than for people of normal weight.

Making healthy choices is a lot harder for those with limited access to transportation.

“While a market may be within walking distance, the safety issues in rough neighborhoods make it unlikely most people will make the effort to trek a distance from home to buy food,” said Pamela Kelle, a local registered dietitian and nutritionist who runs the Your Own Food Coach website. “Other transportation may be available, but have you ever tried to carry several bags of groceries on your lap on a bus?”

Food deserts started getting attention locally in 2012 after Food Lion closed most of its Chattanooga stores, according to the YMCA’s Bill Rush, who manages the organization’s Pioneering Healthy Communities project.

The company had three stores in inner-city Chattanooga, and when they shut down, no one rushed in to take their place.

Several groups in Chattanooga have been trying to solve the problem by bringing fresh produce to areas where it previously has not been available.

For several years, the YMCA has sponsored produce trucks that have made regular rounds in food desert neighborhoods, offering fresh fruits and vegetables. But YMCA officials realized they needed a longer-term solution, so they have begun working with local food store owners to expand their produce offerings. The Y offers advice and financial assistance in purchasing coolers and also helps store owners find local farmers who can supply fruits and vegetables.

Rush says he is negotiating with two other store owners and hopes to have a fourth in place within a few months.

But everyone involved in the battle against obesity concedes that the problem is greater than merely giving everyone access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

It’s no surprise that the South is the most overweight region in the U.S., said Dr. David Schlundt, a Vanderbilt University psychology professor who has studied the problem. He argues that while the way we work has changed, our diets have not.

“When most people were employed in agriculture, you needed lots of calories to get you through all of that hard work,” he said. “But now, you’re going to drive your car and sit on a chair at a 7-Eleven all day, so you don’t need biscuits and gravy, or fried chicken or other fried foods.”

Breaking away from that diet may not be easy.

“The DNA we inherit on how to prepare food is important,” Rush said. “Even if we have access to healthy food, how do we fix it healthier? Does it taste good? Our taste buds are developed when we’re young. Learning and appreciating new tastes can be challenging.”

“If you are a single mother, head of household raising children at poverty level, you’re having to scramble to get a lot done just to survive,” Schlundt said. “You don’t have the time or energy to do a salad with a low-fat dressing.”

“Sometimes eating or overeating is a way of coping with stress or adversity,” he added. “And some people just really like to eat.”

And all around us there is advertising, touting the latest fast-food special.

“When you take a look at what’s being marketed dollar-wise and who it’s being marketed to, that has a direct correlation to the epidemic we’re in,” Rush said.

Countering that message takes a big educational effort. The Chattanooga Area Food Bank has launched a pilot program at Orchard Knob Elementary School to teach second- and fourth-graders the importance of healthy food choices, including giving them a “Sack Pack” of nutritional snacks to take home over the weekend.

The health department has helped fund dozens of community gardens to promote food awareness.

“When a kid is involved in growing fruits and vegetables, they are much more likely to at least try those fruits and vegetables,” Bilderback said. “If you have grown broccoli, you are much more likely to eat broccoli.”

But changing bad eating habits is not going to be easy.

“There has to be an incentive to eat healthy foods,” Kelle said. “It may take another entire generation to address the culture issues surrounding foods and teach our young why it is the best insurance policy for a healthy life.”

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at