Mrs. Obama v. Food Deserts

I respect the way Mrs. Obama is including rural America in the “food deserts” discussion, because food insecurity is a real and pressing problem out here just as in the inner cities.

I’d also like to hold up the lens of history and share with you the map on this page (you’ll have to scroll down). The red spots indicate places (gardens and gardeners) mentioned in Charles Lathrop Pack’s 1919 book, The War Garden Victorious. Pack, you may recall, spearheaded war gardening during WWI and helped re-brand it as “victory gardening” after the war ended. One of the reasons he wanted to do so was to encourage people to provide for themselves through urban, suburban and rural gardens to fight food scarcity even in peace time.

Now take a look at the map of local food sources on’s site.

Do you see a similar “hole” in the two maps? What do you make of the modern Western “food desert”? Is it solely the byproduct of a challenging climate? Is it a population issue?

I don’t have the answers, but I’ve been puzzling through these two maps since I first mentioned them on the old site in May of 2008. And note that Pack’s map was around a long time before fast foods and supermarkets came along.

Seeing this video today made me want to bring them out again. If we’re going to wipe out “food deserts” in seven years as Mrs. Obama desires, might we need to look for some answers in this disparity? To be clear, I’m emphatically not becoming a defender of cheap, crappy food purveyors (!). I am, however, wondering if we need to be mindful that what needs to be done in some rural areas–especially in the West–may be different than techniques employed in Detroit or even Georgia. Are we fully prepared for that possibility? Is the White House?

Then again, these may just be a couple of curiously similar maps… and nothing more.

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  1. I completely agree.

    I see the same holes in this map:

    Could it be that actual deserts might be food deserts?
    Or that where there are no people, there are no farms and supermarkets?

    On this page:
    we have a map of where the people are who are using food stamps. This can be thought of as a surrogate for a map of where there are people having a difficult time obtaining food. I seem to be seeing the same holes in this map as well.

    Here is a map of what the U.S. would look like with states that all have an equal number of people:

    Where there are no people, there are fewer hungry people.

    In populated areas, it is easier to get to the places where food stamps are distributed, and to get to where food is sold. There is often inexpensive public transportation. In rural areas, getting to food is more time consuming and expensive. The problems of food security exist in both rural and populated areas, and the types of problems in each type of area will differ for many reasons.

    But simply looking at holes in a map can be misleading.

    Someone with access to a good GIS system populated with census data can probably generate for us a map of the density of supermarkets divided by the density of people. Then we could look for holes in the map that actually relate to food security. That would be an interesting map to see.

    • See, this is what I wanted to hear. Interesting stuff.

      I think just the phrase “food DESERTS” made those maps–esp. the old one–leap to mind this morning.

      Do we know anyone who could whip up a map like that, Simon?

  2. Funny you should ask.
    It turns out that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program has just that:

    The “Grocery stores per 1,000 population” map is quite surprising. OR, ID, MT, ND, SD, NE, CO, KS, NM, and TX have the highest density spots.

    If you want a map that looks like it fills all the holes in the population and food desert maps, try the “Convenience stores with gas per 1,000 population” map. Likewise for the “Full service restaurants per 1,000 population”.

    IN the “Food eaten at home” section, the “Lbs per capita fruit&veg” map is illuminating. Which part of Texas are you in? It seems to be completely bipolar, likely due to income distribution.

    • Thanks! Bill & Julie over at sent me same map. Fascinating stuff.

      I live outside of San Antonio, Texas. According to maps, we like our veggies and fruits served up with a lotta sweet snacks and a nice bit of solid fats.

      We’re near what’s called “the Winter Garden”:

      Therefore, even though we’re more arid than other parts of state, we have–thanks to agriculture–greater access to fruits and veggies than, say, my hometown in East Texas. Plus, we get a lot of food from Mexico.

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