If you live in a major city, where corner stores stock fresh fruit and vegetables, not to mention vegan cookies, you might never know that huge swaths of the U.S. population have little access to affordable and nutritious food. A new online tool launched by the USDA brings that reality into sharp focus, pinpointing America's "food deserts" (shown in pink)—tracts where residents lack access to large grocery stores.
The Food Desert Locator is the latest initiative of Michele Obama's Let's Move program to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Lack of access to quality, reasonably priced healthful foods has been associated with poor dietary habits and a higher risk for obesity and other health-related problems. Lower-income families, sensitive to price, are more likely to purchase food from convenience stores that carry cheap, processed foods.
The mapping tool uses census figures to identify "low-income" tracts (where at least 20 percent of residents have income at or below the federal poverty levels) and "low-access" areas (places where at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population live more than a mile away from a grocery store).
Users can search for a specific area and zoom down to street level. Pop-ups display population statistics, such as the percentage and number of people who are low-income and have limited access to grocery outlets, or the number of low-access households without a car. The map reveals that about 13.5 million people, roughly 10% of the census tracts, live in food deserts—82% of which reside in urban areas.
While the tool is useful in illustrating the vastness of the problem (the macro view shows seas of pink), it seems to fail on the more local scale. For example, food deserts are a particular problem in city centers, where it's easier to go to McDonald's than it is to buy an apple. While supermarkets might be close, they're relatively far, when bad food is so ubiquitous and near at hand. But look at these maps of Chicago and Detroit, two cities where food deserts are an endemic problem, affecting well over a half-million people in each city:
There's hardly a spot of pink. Which doesn't mean that the problem isn't there. The tendency of data to simply overlook problems just beyond its reach is a lesson worth remembering in the days when infographics are so common and always seem to carry the weight of truth.