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March 14, 2013

Where's your closest grocery store? USDA maps the nation's food deserts

Daily Briefing

Many Americans do not live within walking distance of a grocery store—and USDA is shining a spotlight on these food deserts with its new Food Access Research Atlas.

For the atlas, USDA staff members—including economist Paula Dutko—used data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2006-2010 American Community Survey to make an interactive map of supermarket locations and identify communities that do not have easy access to healthy foods.

With the map, "[p]eople can get a more detailed picture of exactly what challenges they encounter in getting to the grocery store," Dutko told NPR.

Although USDA first launched the map in 2011, it has been recently updated so that anyone can enter a U.S. address into the atlas to determine whether the location is in a food desert or paradise. According to USDA officials, food deserts are a particular problem for low-income communities, where residents often do not have vehicles.

Overall, they found that the majority of U.S. residents must use cars to shop for groceries and that a significant number of housing units are located "far" from supermarkets. Researchers considered a "far" distance from a supermarket as one mile in urban areas and more than 10 miles in rural areas.

The updated atlas also tracks those living on college campuses and military bases and whether the dining choices available to residents meet standards for healthy food access.

Dutko says she hopes that the USDA team can add public transportation to the atlas, as well (Shute, "The Salt," NPR, 3/13; UPI, 3/13; USDA Blog, 3/11).

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