Food Access? There’s a Map for That

No eggs, no meat, no public transportation. D.C. is struggling with all of these issues after yet another snow storm. Conditions are bad, don’t get me wrong, but I wonder how many counties across America struggle without public transportation or adequate access to healthy food even on the sunniest of days.

The data is out there and now The United States Department of Agriculture has created an interactive Food Environment Atlas, mapping those data points including local foods, food insecurity, proximity to grocery stores, food prices, as well as providing information on the general socioeconomic makeup of the community. (

I poked around on the atlas, looking at the information it had for my home county back in Ohio. Not surprisingly, Licking County has .804 fast food restaurants for every thousand people. Compare that to .16 grocery stores for every thousand people. Here in Alameda County (my current home) things are a bit better; .25 grocery stores for every thousand people and .765 fast food joints for every thousand people. You can even find the number of people eligible for free lunch programs or participating in the breakfast programs associated with the School Lunch programs, yeah, a lot of people rely on them. For example, monthly participants in the free Breakfast programs for San Francisco total 1,175,999 people. It can tell you the ratio of cost comparing fruits to sugary snacks, low-fat milk to soda pop, etc. It includes information on taxes on various food items. It has percentages of farms with sales directly to consumers. It tells you a lot.

But keep in mind, there are some things the interactive map can’t tell you. It can’t tell you why exercise rates are the way they are. It does not detail how many parks are available or how safe they are. It doesn’t tell you about changes over time or the number of activists working tirelessly to improve these numbers. Statistics are always just a snapshot. Data collection is an important starting point to identify problems and design policy reform. But working on these issues, and convincing others that they are worth restructuring the way we think, behave, produce, and consume will require us to create an equally sensitive and thorough map of qualitative issues. We have to be able to describe the relationship between farmer’s markets and diabetes rates, between Farm to School programs and the large numbers of people who rely nationally administered meals through the Child Nutrition Act. We have to pay attention to how communities benefit when they can produce for themselves, not just in the data points, but in community relationships and  a sense of well being. We have to understand how stigma is created around government assistance in certain programs and not in others (social security is treated as an inalienable right while nutritional assistance programs, despite the name upgrade, are still seen as markers of dependency).

So, check out the map. Then get the stories. Change will require we are familiar with both the data and the narrative. In the end, I defend Slow Food’s goals because it seeks to preserve meaning, the meaning we create when we cook, when we produce, when we share, when we know. I feel Slow Food seeks what Wendell Berry describes as pleasure based not on ignorance but knowledge. And therefore, my challenge is crafted not just with numbers and ratios, but with stories and recipes.

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