A relatively new term has come about in the last decade’s discussions about the obesity crisis in America – food deserts. These are areas of the country where residents have limited access to supermarkets or grocery stores. Many believe that the identification and eradication of food deserts is important, because educating individuals about healthy choices only goes so far if those individuals do not have access to or cannot afford the healthy options. First lady Michelle Obama believes so strongly in this idea that she has even made the eradication of Food Deserts part of her “Let’s Move!” initiative.

The USDA is aiding this eradication effort by providing data on the location of food deserts throughout the U.S. The USDA asserts that community leaders and researchers can use these data to learn more about the problem and help develop solutions. The USDA has recently released a Food Desert Locator tool, with which users can identify the locations of food deserts and understand more about the populations in those areas. The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store; the researchers have identified a total of 6,529 food-desert census tracts in the continental U.S. (that’s out of a total 172,772 tracts), with roughly 75 percent of these tracts being urban and the remaining 25 percent being rural.

I downloaded the data and took a look at the food deserts in Virginia. The first thing I noted in the documentation was that the population data come from Census 2000 (I’m not sure why they haven’t updated this to reflect Census 2010 yet). The second thing I noticed is that low access to healthy food is defined as more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and as more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas. I question this decision, because it’s likely that people in urban areas have more access to public transportation that will get them to a supermarket or large grocery store, although that would still likely be more time consuming than the same trip in a personal vehicle. But, using their definitions, the USDA has identified 193 Virginia census tracts as food desert tracts. That’s a little over 6% of all VA tracts. And since you probably don’t often deal in census tracts, I’ll translate that into more meaningful terms. The USDA identified almost 325,000 Virginians as having low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. With a statewide Census 2000 population of a little over 7 million, that means almost 5% of all Virginians have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store, according to USDA definitions. Just about 8 in 10 of those people live in urban areas.  The data also tell us that 17,000 urban households have no vehicle and are more than 1 mile from a supermarket, while about 3,300 rural households in Virginia have no vehicle and are more than 10 miles from a supermarket.

I put these Virginia data on a map (This map is no longer available.). When you view it, you’ll see that the tracts in urban areas are shown in red, and the tracts in rural areas are shown in light brown. Keep in mind when you look at the map that about 80% of the people living in food deserts live in those red areas. You can use the interactive features on the map to zoom in/out and pan around the map. If you do that you’ll see that there are many rural food deserts along the West Virginia border and in the rural parts of Southside Virginia. There are also many food deserts in cities like Richmond, Petersburg, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Fredericksburg, Danville, Hampton, Virginia Beach, and Norfolk.

There is much debate over the usefulness of research into food deserts. Some believe that the obesity crisis stems mainly from a structural problem – that many people do not have access to the healthy food they’d like to buy – while others believe that poor health stems from personal preferences – that some people just prefer to eat the cheap, unhealthy food from places like McDonald’s. I tend to align more with the folks somewhere in the middle. I believe there are a multitude of factors to blame for the obesity epidemic, and that research shows food deserts are one contributor. Working toward ensuring that all of our fellow Virginian’s can get to and afford healthy food is one of the many things we can do to battle this crisis.