As I write, the streets of D.C. are piled with snow, Federal government offices in the area are closed, and the city has come to a slip-sliding standstill. Throughout the storm, my colleagues from USDA’s Economic Research Service have been working to get Your Food Environment Atlas up and running for the launch of First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity. Working on this mapping tool, which measures a community’s food-choice landscape, has been particularly interesting as the piles of record snowfall continue to obscure our own food landscape.
I have always known that my food environment plays an important role in the types of foods I feed myself and my family. Never has this been more true: my family’s home is without power, the neighborhood streets are undrivable, and our food environment has been whittled down to the restaurants and ready-to-eat food establishments we can walk to and that still have food. These few days have given me a taste for what many experience daily: limited cooking options and limited access to healthy foods.
For children in low-income families living in neighborhoods with few healthy food options, unhealthy diets may be an unavoidable reality of everyday life, not just snow-storm life. For the thousands of children who are obese or overweight, this reality has serious health consequences. In recognition of the toll the obesity epidemic is having on the health and well-being of our children, the First Lady has challenged the nation to move to end childhood obesity in a generation. In recognition of the influences that the food environment has on diet quality, she has challenged researchers across government to examine the interaction of factors influencing food and lifestyle choices.
USDA’s Your Food Environment Atlas is an online mapping tool that compares the food environment of U.S. counties—the mix of factors that together influence food choices, diet quality, and general fitness among residents. The Atlas contains 90 food environment indicators—most at the county level—allowing Atlas users to visualize and compare on a map how counties fare on each of the indicators. This new online tool is designed to stimulate research and inform policymakers as they address the nexus between diet and public health.
What can the Atlas tell us? Think about what the First Lady has said about the obstacles people often face in taking responsibility for adopting healthy habits of diet and fitness. Access, affordability, and convenience affect the ability to provide healthy meals for children and other household members. Proximity to full-service grocery stores affects both access and affordability, and it’s one of the many indicators the Atlas measures, including proximity among low-income residents. The Atlas shows the concentration of convenience food stores, fast-food establishments, full-service restaurants, and farmers’ markets in a county.
A variety of indicators measured in the Atlas specifically affect affordability. Examples are the price ratios of selected healthy foods to snack foods and even the price of low-fat milk. The food and financial needs among a county’s population are also part of the picture: data on these include median household income, poverty rates, and eligibility of residents for food programs like school lunches and SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program).
We can find information in the Atlas on per capita consumption of foods from both the healthy and not-so-healthy side of the diet ledger, including fruit and vegetables, soft drinks, and fats. And the Atlas measures some key health outcomes like diabetes and obesity rates.
Michelle Obama and others have emphasized the importance of exercise as well as healthy diets in curbing childhood obesity and promoting general fitness. Parks, playgrounds, and after-school sports can be sidelined if a community lacks funds. This is another area Your Food Environment Atlas addresses, with data that include counties’ recreation and fitness facilities, and natural amenities.
All of these components of a community’s food environment are just a sample of the 90 indicators the Atlas contains, covering demographic, health, and food access characteristics. While particularly useful to researchers, the Atlas is available to the general public on the ERS website. Anyone using this tool can, for example, create a map and compare counties by prevalence of adult diabetes, and then see how they compare in geographic access to grocery stores. And for each county, users can view all the county-level indicators that contribute to its food environment profile.
The data in Your Food Environment Atlas document the situations of real people in real communities. We hope this web tool will contribute to a national conversation on food choices and diet quality, and on some of the social and economic conditions to consider when searching for solutions to diet-related public health issues.