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USDA launches online tool for locating 'food deserts'

USDA launches online tool for locating 'food deserts'

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Analytics at work: new online locator service pinpoints areas across the United States with limited access to healthy foods. This tool may help businesses and entrepreneurs in the food business identify underserved and unserved areas.

The US Department of Agriculture has launched an Internet-based mapping tool that pinpoints the location of "food deserts" around the country and provides data on population characteristics of census tracts where it says residents have limited access to "affordable and nutritious" foods.

Often, supermarket chains and other retailers are reluctant to locate in low-income or remote areas. There are also complaints that these areas tend to have an inordinate amount of fast-food outlets that encourage too much unhealthy eating. Witness Los Angeles city council's recent effort to ban the building of new fast-food restaurants in parts of the city.

The online USDA tool is intended to assist efforts to expand the availability of nutritious food in food deserts. It also provides a tool for businesses and entrepreneurs to locate unserved and underserved areas in which to locate new ventures. USDA defines a "food desert" this way:

"A food desert is a low-income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. 'Low income' tracts are defined as those where at least 20 percent of the people have income at or below the federal poverty levels for family size, or where median family income for the tract is at or below 80 percent of the surrounding area's median family income. Tracts qualify as 'low access' tracts if at least 500 persons or 33 percent of their population live more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (for rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles)."

Under these income and food access criteria, about 10 percent of the 65,000 census tracts in the United States meet the definition of a food desert, according to the USDA. These food desert tracts contain 13.5 million people with low access to sources of healthful food. The majority of this population—82 percent—live in urban areas.

Users of the Web-based product 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 outlets, or the number of "low-access" households without a car.

In Cook County, Ill., for example, which includes Chicago, 39 census tracts are food desert tracts. These tracts contain over 81,000 people with low access to a supermarket, including over 26,000 children under the age of 18. With the Locator, users can zoom in and view street names and other features of these and other food desert census tracts.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure