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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the definition of a food desert?

Why the focus on food deserts?

Where are the food deserts?

How do I use the Food Desert Locator Tool?

Are there other tools available to me?

How do USDA, Treasury and Health and Human Services define "healthy food"?

What does a healthy food intervention or strategy look like?

What types of projects will be funded?

Who should get involved?

What kind of data was used to identify food deserts?

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What is the definition of a food desert?

The 2008 Farm Bill defined a “food desert” as an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.

While there are many ways to define a food desert, a working group comprised of members from the departments of Treasury, Health and Human Services, and USDA, which is partnering to expand the availability of nutritious food, have more specifically defined a food desert as a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. This definition is derived from a 1-year study to assess the extent of the problem of limited access in the US. For more information see http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/AP/AP036/.

Why the focus on food deserts?

The 2010 White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity cited research that limited access to healthy, affordable food choices often leads to poor diets and high levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. Millions of Americans living in food deserts also face higher levels of food insecurity, increasing the number of low- and moderate-income families without access to enough food to sustain healthy, active lives. The First Lady's Let's Move! Initiative seeks to reverse childhood obesity within a generation, and increasing access to healthy, affordable foods is one key component.

The 2008 Farm Bill defined a "food desert" as "an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities." These areas include rural, urban, and Tribal communities. The Farm Bill directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct a study of food deserts to assess, among other things, the incidence and prevalence of food deserts. The study found that more than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods where the closest supermarket is more than one mile from their homes.

Where are the food deserts?

There are food deserts in all types of communities: urban, suburban, rural, and Tribal. To help community leaders identify the food deserts in their area, the USDA Economic Research Service launched its Food Desert Locator (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert). This online tool allows users to retrieve data on a county-by-county basis pertaining to food access.

USDA, Treasury and Health and Human Services have determined by US Census tract the areas that specifically qualify as food deserts. Click HERE to learn more about the criteria and about how to determine if you are in a Food Desert.

How do I use the Food Desert Locator Tool?

Users of the Web-based, Food Locator Tool (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert) can view a map of the United States that highlights and identifies census tracts that qualify as food deserts. Users can scan the map and zoom into an area or use the search feature to find a specific location. Users can create maps showing food desert census tracts. They can also view and download statistics on population characteristics of a selected tract—e.g., the percentage and number of people that are low income and have low access to large grocery stores, or the number of "low-access" households without a car by clicking on a specific census tract. The information is also provided in a downloadable Excel spreadsheet.

For more information about the Food Desert Locator Tool, CLICK HERE.

Are there other tools available to me?

The Food Desert Locator comes on the heels of an earlier Web mapping tool documenting indicators of food access, which was also developed by ERS: the recently updated Food Environment Atlas. That product, unveiled by the First Lady at the launch of her Let's Move! initiative last year, presents a broad set of statistics on food choices, health and well-being, and community characteristics. It includes indicators of food access, but does not define or identify food deserts. The Atlas presents data at the county level, while the new Food Desert Locator data are at the census tract level, covering smaller subdivisions whose general population characteristics are often relatively homogeneous. The Food Desert Atlas is on the Web at www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert. The site contains an online media kit that provides downloadable images and logos.

How do USDA, Treasury and Health and Human Services define "healthy food"?

These three programs seeks to increase access to whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat free or low-fat dairy, and lean meats that are perishable (fresh, refrigerated, or frozen) or canned as well as nutrient-dense foods and beverages encouraged by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

What does a healthy food intervention or strategy look like?

USDA, Treasury and Health and Human Services have dedicated funds to supporting strategies that improve access, purchase and consumption of healthy affordable foods. The three Departments envision a wide range of interventions. The initiative will give priority consideration to the establishment of healthy food retail outlets located in defined food deserts.

1. Financing healthy food retail outlets in food deserts. Healthy food retail outlets are for-profit or non-profit sellers of fruits, vegetables, and other foods recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and can include, but are not limited to, a grocery store, mobile food retailer, farmers market, cooperative, corner store, bodega or a store that sells other food and non food items, including an existing retail store that upgrades to offer a full range of healthy food choices.

2. Financing the production or distribution of healthy food in food deserts. This may include the financing of farms, fisheries and other food production facilities; as well as distribution centers and other facilities that support the healthy food supply chain.

3. Financing strategies that promote or encourage the purchase of healthy foods, including outreach and education to consumers in foods deserts about healthy food choices and marketing support to healthy food retailers to increase the purchase of healthy foods.

What types of projects will be funded?

Priority consideration will be given to organizations located in communities identified as food deserts and whose projects seek to eliminate food deserts in these designated areas. Projects that demonstrate the need for improved healthy food access in communities that are not officially designated as food deserts are also eligible for funding.  Interventions should address the range of supply chain segments, including:

  • Retailers: Projects that build or support healthy, affordable food retail outlets. This can include grocery stores, corner stores, mobile food vendors, farmers markets, and community supported agriculture projects. Retailers should offer a range of quality foods and prices that make healthy, affordable choices affordable.
  • Producers/Distributors: Agricultural producers and distributors whose products primarily benefit food deserts—this can include businesses that add value to or facilitate the movement of healthy, affordable food into food desert areas.
  • Marketers: Projects that better market healthy, affordable food to communities within food deserts. Consumers need adequate information to make healthy, affordable choices, while retailers need support to market healthy, affordable food options.

Who should get involved?

Many types of organizations are eligible for funding and/or technical assistance. These include:

  • Businesses
  • Local and Tribal Governments
  • Non-profit Organizations
  • Cooperatives and Agricultural Producers
  • State Departments of Agriculture
  • Colleges and Universities
  • Treasury-certified Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs)
  • Community Development Entities (CDEs)
  • Community Development Corporations (CDCs)

We encourage interested parties to form partnerships and develop sustainable projects and integrated strategies prior to applying. Strong partnerships will be able to leverage multiple programs, providing greater resources to combat food deserts.

What kind of data was used to identify food deserts?

The Food Desert Locator uses 2000 Census population data and a 2006 directory of supermarkets and large grocery stores (food stores with at least $2 million in sales that contain all major food departments). The directory was developed from a list of stores authorized to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, augmented by data from Trade Dimensions TDLinx (a Nielsen company) These data will be updated with more recent population data and store location data in 2012.

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