Food Deserts: Interactive Map Identifies Areas Where Nutritious Foods Are Inaccessible

Written by Becky Villaneda

Go into any inner-city community and try and find a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Those types of grocery stores are rare in cities that are populated by low-income families. But look for a McDonald’s or Taco Bell—and it’s guaranteed you’ll find these types of fast food chains or a liquor store on every other corner. Can you imagine your local liquor store being your source of every day food?

In May 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced an interactive map that identifies the areas across the nation where people who have little to no access to affordable and nutritious food. Food as simple as vegetables and fruit. These areas are called food deserts, and the interactive locator which was developed by the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), will hopefully be one of many steps to combat child obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other health problems that occur from a poor diet.

It’s a vicious cycle. The poor can’t afford to eat right, suffer medical problems, and consequently can’t afford the proper health care to cure their diseases and ailments.

The Food Desert Locator, available at, is a part of the Obama administration’s $400 million Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which plans to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to under served urban and rural communities across America.

“This new Food Desert Locator will help policy makers, community planners, researchers, and other professionals, identify communities where public-private intervention can help make fresh, healthy, and affordable food more readily available to residents,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release. “With this and other Web tools, USDA is continuing to support federal government efforts to present complex sets of data in creative, accessible online formats.”

According to 2010 figures, nationwide the USDA estimates that 23.5 million people, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income areas that are more than a mile from a supermarket. Of the 23.5 million, 11.5 million are low-income individuals in households with incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.

The HFFI plans to promote a range of solutions that expand access to nutritious foods, including developing and equipping grocery stores and other retailers with healthy foods, in communities that currently lack these options. Through this, the Obama administration aims to eliminate food deserts across the country within seven years.

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign also was created in conjunction with HFFI’s efforts to solve and address the obesity epidemic. Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates have tripled. One in three children in America are overweight or obese. And, of course, the numbers are even higher in minority communities, where there is the lack of fresh food and vegetables options.

In line with the First Lady’s campaign is the new Food Plate icon that has replaced the food pyramid. The new Food Plate icon resembles a place setting and has five categories of dairy, vegetables, fruit, protein and grains. The USDA suggests to make half of your plate fruit and vegetables. Great. But what about those 23.5 million people living off of liquor store food?

So what is the solution? Many are hailing farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) as a good start. Both also create jobs, which ends up being a win-win situation.

In 1976, the U.S. Government, as a part of the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act of 1976, created the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). Essentially it is a program to get more farmers’ markets, roadside stands, CSAs, agri-tourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market out into the public. For the 2010-11 fiscal year, $10 million was allocated to fund the FMMP. Individual applications can earn up to $100,000. Priority is being given to those proposals and projects that will target food deserts. Currently, the USDA National Farmers Market Directory contains 6,132 farmers markets in its database.

A CSA is a food distribution system in which a community supports a farming operation. The growers and consumers work together in creating this food network. According to, which has the most comprehensive list of CSAs in the U.S., “a farmer offers a certain number of ‘shares’ to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, and other farm products and interested consumers purchase a share (aka a ‘membership’ or a ‘subscription’) and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.”

There are some who are taking a more entrepreneurial approach to food deserts. Chicagoans Steven Casey, Jeff Pinzino and Sheelah Muhammad came up with the idea of mobile grocery store to bring the healthy goodies to communities that needed it most. According to an article by the Huffington Post, The Chicago Transit Authority donated a bus for them to use and Architecture for Humanity helped transform the bus into full-fledged grocery store. In its first five days of operation this past May, the bus served more than 600 customers.

Do you have any ideas that will help diminish food deserts? Let’s hear them.


“About the Food Deserts Locator.” USDA Economic Research Service. Web. 23 June 2011. <>.
“Community Supported Agriculture.” Local Harvest. Web. 23 June 2011. <>.
“Farmers Market Promotion Program.” USDA. Web. 23 June 2011. <>.
Guzzardi, Will. “Fresh Moves Mobile Grocery Store An Innovative Solution To Food Deserts.” The Huffington Post. 16 June 2011. Web. 23 June 2011. <>.
“Let’s Move: America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids.” Let’s Move! Web. 23 June 2011. <>.
“Obama Administration Details Healthy Food Financing Initiative.” United States Department of Health and Human Services. 19 Feb. 2010. Web. 23 June 2011. <>.
“USDA Introduces Online Tool for Locating ‘Food Deserts'” U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2 May 2011. Web. 23 June 2011. <>.
“USDA My Plate.” USDA. Web. 23 June 2011. <>.

About the author

Becky Villaneda

Becky is a Los Angeles-born writer educated in southern and northern California. She became a writer to raise awareness of social and environmental issues and because her mother’s passion for the written word was contagious. In early 2011, Becky and three other journalists teamed to write their first book “Stories4Women,” which is a collection of true short stories. This project has given her the courage to explore other book ideas … stay tuned. She recently moved to Santa Barbara and works at Hispanic Business Magazine and is happily exploring the city’s sights and sounds.