A Map of the U.S. Food Environment

Do you like maps?

Today the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent me an email about their Food Environment Atlas, a web-based mapping tool developed by the USDA’s Economic Research Service. It allows users to compare U.S. counties in terms of their “food environment”–the set of factors that help determine and reflect a community’s access to affordable, healthy food.

With the Atlas you can visualize and geographically compare a wide range of demographic, health, and food-access characteristics, most at the county level.

Some of the factors in a food environment include store and restaurant proximity, food prices, food and nutrition assistance programs, and community characteristics.

The Atlas assembles statistics on three broad categories of food environment factors:

  1. Food Choices—Indicators of the community’s access to and acquisition of healthy, affordable food, such as: access and proximity to a grocery store; number of food stores and restaurants; expenditures on fast foods; food and nutrition assistance program participation; quantities of foods eaten; food prices; food taxes; and availability of local foods
  2. Health and Well-Being—Indicators of the community’s success in maintaining healthy diets, such as: food insecurity; diabetes and obesity rates; and physical activity levels
  3. Community Characteristics—Indicators of community characteristics that might influence the food environment, such as: demographic composition; income and poverty; population loss; metro-nonmetro status; natural amenities; and recreation and fitness centers.

Originally launched in 2010, the Atlas has been upgraded and now includes 168 indicators–up from the original 90.

It’s fascinating, but in some ways difficult to use. I was drawn to the map because I’m a map geek who’s also interested in food. But some of the interaction is cumbersome.

For example, when I put my cursor on Michigan, I ended up on Clinton County. So I guess rule number one is to zoom in on the state you’re interested in until you’re at county level, then click on your county. Once I got to where I wanted to be on the map, the data that popped up in a box was difficult to comprehend. I think it was just too crammed in.

But if you go to the side bar on the left called “Map an Indicator” you can click on the topics you’re interested in and watch the map change colors as it fills in data related to the indicator you’ve chosen. Pretty cool.

One of the indicators I chose was under Local Foods. It’s called Farm to School programs, 2009. I’m interested in this topic because of all the farm-to-table restaurants I seek out, and because I think getting farms and schools synched up is a win-win for communities. But when you plug that in to the interactive Food Environment Atlas you’ll be disappointed when you see the results unless you live in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida, or California. I guess the U.S. has a long way to go with this program.

If you’re not a map geek and you love spreadsheets, you’ll be happy to know you can download the data and sort it by state.

Either way, it’s great to have access to this information!


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