USDA: 6,501 ‘Food Deserts’ Are Spread Across Most of U.S. Mainland

By Penny Starr | July 22, 2011 | 4:33am EDT

( – An interactive map on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Web site is covered with pink-colored grids – each grid representing the 6,501 “food deserts” the agency says exist across the country.

A complicated methodology was used to identify the food deserts, with data gathered from the 2000 U.S. Census, a directory of large supermarkets, demographics that include rural or urban areas, income levels, and the distance to the nearest grocery store, according to the U.S.D.A.’s Food Desert Locator portion of its Web site.

First lady Michelle Obama discusses the findings of the Childhood Obesity Task Force report. (AP Photo)

In general, a food desert exists where low-income people must travel more than 1 mile in urban communities and 10 miles in rural communities to access retailers that have fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy food offerings.

In an announcement on Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama said that some of those retail supermarkets and grocery stores have made commitments to expand or open 1,500 stores to “provide access to healthy, affordable food to millions of people in underserved communities,” the White House press release stated.

Corporations making that commitment include Wal-Mart, Walgreens and SUPERVALU, the latter of which operates under a variety of names, including  Shop ‘N Save and Shoppers.

Mrs. Obama’s announcement is part of her “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity, which includes the Healthy Food Financing Initiative – described by the Obama administration as “a multi-million dollar public and private investment to improve access to healthy food.” President Barack Obama requested $330 million in his 2012 budget for the initiative.

The Food Desert Locator is also a part of Mrs. Obama’s campaign and is based on a June 2009 report by the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service about access to food in the United States.

The first lady cited statistics from that study in making Wednesday’s announcement, including the 23.5 million Americans – which includes 6,500 children – “who live in low-income areas that lack stores likely to sell affordable and healthy foods.”

The press release did not, however, include other statistics from the 2009 report, which include data showing that only 2.2 percent of all U.S. households live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle.

Fruit waiting to be sold at a farmers' market in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

The report said an additional 3.2 percent of all households live between one-half and one mile to a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle.

“If estimates are restricted to consider only low-income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket,” stated the report.

The report further said that “93 percent of those who live in low-income areas with limited access traveled to the grocery store in a vehicle they or another household member drove.”

Another finding in the report indicates that access rather than a lack of access may play a larger role in obesity rates.

“Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity,” the report states.

The Food Desert Locator’s interactive map allows users to click on one of its pink grids to get details about that food desert, including the area’s population and how much of that population has “low access” to healthy food.

The Web site also includes a spread sheet detailing all 6,501 food deserts and documentation about the project.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama praised the corporations who committed to helping her campaign.

“The commitments we’re announcing today have the potential to be a game-changer for kids and communities across the country,” Mrs. Obama said. “We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise, but if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals because their only option for groceries is a gas station or the local minimart, than all that is just talk.”

SUPERVALU committed to opening 250 Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years. Walgreens will expand its food offerings to include whole fruits and vegetables in at least 1,000 stores. Wal-Mart will open or expand up to 300 stores by 2016. Several regional companies also pledged to open or improve stores that focus on healthy foods.

The first lady said the commitments made by the businesses would also “create tens of thousands of jobs and serve approximately 9.5 million people in these communities.”

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