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It’s not easy to figure out – even with all of today’s technologies – who has access to healthy food choices in communities across the United States.  An updated look at food access problems across the country by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that many low-income areas are still experiencing low access to affordable and healthy food. But in dense urban areas like Philadelphia, activists argue, the USDA’s statistics don’t show the whole picture.

The USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas uses census data and information about supermarkets to determine whether an area is a so-called “food desert.” The map shows pockets of food deserts in sections of Philadelphia’s Bridesburg, Bustleton, Tacony, West Oak Lane and Wissinoming neighborhoods. According to the USDA, those neighborhoods represent low-income census tracts where a significant share of residents is more than one mile from the nearest supermarket.

One criticism of the Atlas is that it uses the industry definition of a supermarket, which is based on the volume of sales. That excludes bodegas, or corner stores, as Pat Smith, senior policy advisor at The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) — a community development financial institution in Philadelphia — pointed out.

“There’s still a need for validating the data,” said Smith, arguing that the survey may include a supermarket that doesn’t provide healthy food choices while ignoring a bodega that sells fresh fruits and vegetables.

There’s also the question of how to define “access.” Traditionally the USDA has defined it as living within a mile of a supermarket, if you’re in the city; or within 10 miles of a supermarket in rural areas. But that largely overlooks the role of cars and other kinds of transportation. The USDA attempts to address this shortcoming in its newest version of the food desert map by adding a measurement that factors in the level of car ownership in each area.

Looked at in this way, the map identifies certain areas as particularly challenged, because residents live a mile or more from supermarkets and a significant number of households have low access to vehicles. Those areas are mainly situated in western, southwestern and northern sections of the city, including Cedarbrook, Eastwick Germantown, Kingsessing, Mt Airy, Overbrook, Powelton Village, Southwest Philadelphia, West Oak Lane, West Philadelphia and University City.

But the American lifestyle is too complex to capture simply by looking at the relationship between homes and markets, Emily Badger argues in The Atlantic Cities; it includes factors like commuting patterns and social norms.

Badger writes, “If we could more realistically capture where people shop and how they move through their day – accessing grocery stores close to work, for example – that could help us better identify who’s really at risk and what would help them.”

TRF has developed a tool that it believes more effectively measures food access in urban areas. This study, called Limited Supermarket Access, adds in factors such as car ownership and the level of public transit use in each area, as well as the presence of smaller stores. It compares communities with similar characteristics, which the USDA Atlas does not, and it includes more layers than the Atlas. One of those layers shows the locations of stores endorsed by the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) – which provide more healthy food choices. You can read more about TRF’s mapping methodology here.

But as Smith emphasized, there’s more to the issue than methodology: What matters most is how people use the reports.

“At the end of the day these are tools to help communities think about what the challenges to food access are,” she said. “They are guides to begin to generate conversation about the issue of access and to begin to think about strategies.”

Other cities seem to be following Philadelphia’s lead: New York City and Baltimore have both generated studies on food access, using maps to identify underserved areas.

How does your neighborhood score on these maps? Do you think they accurately reflect your own access to healthy food?


This article also appears on, a public interest blog focused on the federal government and its activities outside of Washington, D.C. AxisPhilly is partnering with GIMBY to produce its first regional blog about the impact of the federal government in Philadelphia.