Do you live near a food desert?

By Razib Khan | May 18, 2011 1:08 am

I really like visualization of statistical information, but sometimes you need a reality check. People with local information really can add value. For example, I apparently live a few blocks away from the edge of a “food desert” according to the USDA. I know this because the local paper has been interviewing people about this, and they’re really confused, as there are multiple super-markets all around the edge of the “desert” (granted, only one is really affordable if you’re on a budget).

If you’re curious where the nearest food desert is, you can look for yourself, the USDA has an interactive map up!

  • L

    Here is the map of the town I grew up in. The red X marks a Food Lion, so I don’t know why they’ve marked the areas surrounding it as in a food desert. The traditionally black parts of town (marked with the light blue ovals) do lack a great access to supermarkets but I wouldn’t classify them as food deserts if they are ok with the more rural portions of the county being non-food deserts. In the upper two ovals, there used to be small, local supermarkets which closed down due to competition from chain stores.

  • Dan

    Funny you should mention this. My city published a map of local food deserts immediately prior to Ms. Obama visiting to promote her food program. My solidly upper middle class, long gentrified, neighborhood was, to my shock, designated a food desert despite the presence of several independent grocers, two weekly farmer’s markets, and several ethnic markets within walking distance. (In fact, I see the USDA map here also designates my neighborhood as a food desert, while neglecting to label several real food deserts I know in poor neighborhoods.) After digging for a while, I learned that some in the neighborhood lobbied to get us designated as a “food desert” to secure funding to attract an upscale grocery chain that thus far wasn’t interested in developing in our neighborhood. Not sure the system was meant to work this way, i.e. tax money used to give the rich better choices while the tax payers think the money is going to feed the poor.

  • Markk

    I checked the application. It is a bad implementation in my area. The highlighted areas in Northern Milwaukee county are home to about 5 or 6 very large (huge – Woodmans etc.) groceries. The one district I bicycle through a fair amount and there is a Pick and Save big box no more than 20 to 25 minutes walk from any corner of that area. Not a confidence builder in what they used to figure this out.

    I guess the criteria have more to do with poverty than good food.

  • EcoPhysioMichelle

    Apparently my entire hometown is a Food Desert. Columbus has a lot of it on the southeast side, which makes sense if you know the demographics of the city.

  • jb

    Wow. I don’t live in a food desert, but the map has accurate representations of all the houses and even garages in my neighborhood. I mean, as far as I can tell it gets the shapes right when houses are non-rectangular! This isn’t something I see on Google Maps for my neighborhood, although places like Manhattan have something similar. Where does this information come from?

  • null

    I’m not sure how that bit of Westminster qualifies as a food desert either, since I know there’s a Safeway within a ten-minute walk of McDaniel. Or is the point that you can’t get to a grocery store by walking? (If that’s the case, I don’t see how there are any rural areas that *don’t* qualify as food deserts…)

  • null

    Same problem in Beltsville. There’s a Giant ten minutes from High Point and a Safeway in Hillandale, and both of them are within walking distance of that entire red section. Are they just using odd criteria to determine what’s a food desert, or did they somehow manage to screw up on such a large scale? Or is four miles (about the distance between the two grocery stores) too long to be considered walking distance anymore?

    And considering that this is the richest majority black county in America, if 38.6% of the people in that census tract (which borders a much richer county!) are too poor to be able to get food*… well, I don’t think things have collapsed that much yet.

    This thing is completely and utterly broken.

    * Who cares whether it’s nutritious or not? Nutritious food is much less expensive than processed food here. You could feed yourself pretty well for a day on the money it’d take to buy one meal of reasonable size from a fast food place.

  • Robert

    Definition of a Food Desert

    The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. To qualify as low-income, census tracts must meet the Treasury Department’s New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program eligibility criteria. 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.

    The NMTC program defines a low-income census tract as: any census tract where (1) the poverty rate for that tract is at least 20 percent, or (2) 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; or for tracts located within a metropolitan area, the median family income for the tract does not exceed 80 percent!!! of the metropolitan area median family income.

    Low access to a healthy food retail outlet is defined as more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and as more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas.

    This whole thing is just another example of the Washington D.C. bureaucracy run amok. They label a large tract near the largest mall in my metropolitan area as a food desert despite it being filled with $300,000 to $500,000 homes (most with at least one pickup truck in the driveway. Plus I know for a fact that there is a Super Safeway right across the street from the edge of this so-called tract.

    I guess they need to define this as such in order to funnel federal tax money into black neighborhoods back in Detroit or some such places like that.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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