Making it Easier to Spot a Food Desert

Dayton, OH
If you’re road tripping to the NCAA tournament in Dayton, OH this week you just might be headed into a food desert. That isn’t to pick on Ohio — it’s just one location to drop into the United States Department of Agriculture’s new Food Access Research Atlas.

The atlas is an interactive map that layers several different views of national data to help visualize within a census tract residents’ access to supermarkets, whether a tract has low-income levels, and if households have access to vehicles. The USDA, Treasury, and Health and Human Services define a food desert as a census tract that has a substantial amount of residents who live in low-income areas and have poor access to a grocery store or a healthy, affordable food outlet.

The research atlas is an updated version of the USDA’s Food Desert Locator in that it now includes additional ways to look at food access. For example, it compares access to a supermarket at 1 to 10 miles to access at .5 to 10 miles. The half-mile can make a huge difference to a single parent without a car who has to take her young children with her when she makes food shopping trips.

Users can search a specific location and break the information down by tract to see why it is or isn’t considered a desert. The tract where Dayton is located “has a relatively high number of households (417 of 2107 total households (19%)) without vehicles that are more than one-half mile from a supermarket.” Users can also look at the information at a bird’s eye view from the state or region level. The data behind the map is available to community planners, researchers or anyone else who wants to use it.


First Lady Michelle Obama often talks about the information landscape as an important component in the overall effort to get Americans to eat healthier. While this map isn’t helpful at the individual level — if someone lives in a food desert, they’re already aware, unfortunately — it does fill in information gaps when it comes to the overall community landscape.

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