Food Desert

Data Update: Food Deserts

The 2015 FARA food desert data are now available in the Community Commons Maproom. Released as a set in early 2017, the Food Access Research Atlas (FARA) data provide communities across the nation with an updated look at food access and, more importantly, a view of how food deserts have changed since 2010. The FARA is a compliment to the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas, which houses county-level food related data. Layers in this recent release include:

The food desert layer, available at the census-tract level, presents a spatial overview of critical food access indicators and uses measures such as population and supermarket accessibility to determine areas of greatest need. Estimates in the latest version of the Food Access Research Atlas draw from various sources, including the 2015 STARS list of supermarkets, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Retailer Directory, the 2010 Decennial Census, and the 2010-14 American Community Survey.

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The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group considers a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Furthermore, to qualify as a food desert tract, at least 33 percent of the tract’s population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

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A low-income census tract is defined as any census tract where the poverty rate for that tract is at least 20 percent, or for tracts not located within a metropolitan area, the median family income for the tract does not exceed 80 percent of statewide median family income. Some census tracts that contain supermarkets or large grocery stores may meet the criteria of a food desert if a substantial number or share of people within that census tract are more than 1 mile (urban areas) or 10 miles (rural areas) from the nearest supermarket. Furthermore, some residents of food desert census tracts may live within 1 or 10 miles of a supermarket; these residents are not counted as low access and thus not counted in the total.

For more information about USDA data, including the methodology and data definitions please visit the Food Access Research Atlas web page.

Member Spotlight: Using Data to Advance Food Policy

Barb LaClair is a consultant for local food policy councils in Kansas. She has years of experience working on hunger and food insecurity issues throughout the state. Many rural Kansans have a difficult time accessing healthy foods, often times relying on food provided by convenience stores. In her work, LaClair is helping food policy councils gather data for assessment work so they can begin to address food insecurity issues at the community level. The food councils’ goals are to not only assess food insecurity issues, but to improve participation in food nutrition assistance programs, strengthen food assistance networks, and encourage community-level action to fight food insecurity.

Can you describe how you began working on food policy issues in Kansas?

We have about a dozen relatively new local food policy councils in Kansas. I have had a personal interest in food systems and food policy for a long time so this was a real opportunity for me to transition into this consulting role to help these new food policy councils with their food system assessment work.

Many of them don’t have a lot of data handling capacity – it can be a little bit intimidating. I have been working with them to gather secondary data from a lot of different sources and then put that together in some kind of cohesive report that they can use as a starting point in their work. 

What’s driven the growth of these new food policy councils?

This has evolved just in the last 2 years. We just have a lot of new groups that are getting their legs under them and starting. They needed a little technical assistance to get going. We’ve had generous funding on the table and that always helps. The Kansas Health Foundation has backed all of this. They have been encouraging communities to think about what they can do at the community level to promote health and healthier behavior. The food policy council funding was a piece of that. So that’s been a tremendous help. But I also think in public health there’s been an evolving recognition that the environments we live in really are important and make a huge difference in how healthy our populations are. So what we can do in terms of reshaping environments to be more supportive of good decisions and healthy behaviors is a real interest for a lot of folks.


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What are the biggest health issues currently impacting the lives of Kansans?

There are several things. Our obesity rate is now 7th highest in the nation. Where obesity rates have started to decline in some places, they have not in Kansas. Also, we do have some real access issues. We have a food insecurity rate that has stayed high while they’ve started to drop in other places, our poverty rates have stayed high, we have some economic challenges that I think are making it difficult for a lot of families. And we have some counties that do not have single grocery store. Rural Kansas definitely has access issues and we have access issues in parts of our cities. I live in Topeka and we certainly have areas where access to grocery stores is not adequate now.


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What do people do when they do not have access to grocery stores?

For those things like bread, milk, convenience stores or dollar stores are a place people can usually get those, but the rest of the food that’s there is not healthy a lot of times. Or they drive very long distances to get to the grocery store. I think farmers markets are growing in Kansas. It varies across the state in terms of interest in locally grown or produced food. Our production of local foods is relatively small, we’re primarily conventional commodity crop farmers.In some places like Lawrence, KC, and NE Kansas I’d say there is more support [for farmers’ markets]. Some accept SNAP, we’re making progress. A lot of rural Kansas is simply about getting access to any food.

How have you used Community Commons?

I use it on a daily basis. It has been tremendously helpful to me. A lot of the data, not all, in pulling together these assessments is available quickly and easily and a nice format through the Community Commons reporting system. I love the mapping feature, I have some rudimentary mapping skills, but on Community Commons I get a nice looking map for what I want. Although I know where all those primary data sources are and I could go pull them from the Census, it just saves me a lot of time by being able to look at a quick report from Community Commons. Every chance I get I encourage people to use Community Commons, I think it is user friendly, I think it is full of tremendously valuable information.

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.

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.

Let’s Move! Third Anniversary Tour

It’s been three years since First Lady Michelle Obama introduced Let’s Move! to America. In that time, the nation has seen a concerted effort to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation through a wide range of initiatives and partnerships formed to improve the health of America’s children.

To celebrate, the First Lady is taking a two-day nationwide tour to highlight achievements and announce new opportunities for continued success. Read more

Beyond the Food Desert

Why We Can’t Get Healthy Foods in Poor Communities

California’s Public Policy Institute published a study in March revealing that not only do poor neighborhoods contain more fast-food restaurants and corner stores than affluent ones, these communities hold nearly twice as many supermarkets per square mile as wealthier locales. Could it be that everything we’ve ever assumed about food justice is wrong? read more


Will Allen Grows A Million Pounds of Food

Will Allen, son of a sharecropper, former professional basketball player, ex-corporate sales leader and now farmer, has become recognized as among the preeminent thinkers of our time on agriculture and food policy. The founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc., a farm and community food center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Will is widely considered the leading authority in the expanding field of urban agriculture. read more and see videos

7-Eleven Shifts Focus to Healthier Food Options

7-Eleven, the convenience store chain, is restocking its shelves with an eye toward health. Over the last year, the retailer has introduced a line of fresh foods for the calorie conscious and trimmed down its more indulgent fare by creating portion-size items. By 2015, the retailer aims to have 20 percent of sales come from fresh foods in its American and Canadian stores, up from about 10 percent currently, according to a company spokesman. read more