In many places throughout the United States, it is more difficult to buy an apple than french fries if you live in a “food desert.” Several counties in the greater Kansas City are home to such food deserts.

Huge swaths of the U.S. population have little access to affordable and nutritious food. A new online tool launched by the USDA illustrates that stark reality with a map pinpointing America’s “food deserts” (shown in pink) – tracts where residents lack access to large grocery stores.

The Food Desert Locator is the latest initiative of Michele Obama’s Let’s Move program to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Lack of access to quality, reasonably priced healthful foods has been associated with

• poor dietary habits
• a higher risk for obesity
• other health-related problems

Lower-income families, sensitive to price, are more likely to purchase food from convenience stores that carry cheap, processed foods. Reaching for Twinkies instead of an orange or other health-oriented food options can have health consequences over the long-term if the dietary habits remain unchanged.

A food desert is a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

How the Map Works
The mapping tool uses census figures to identify “low-income” tracts (where at least 20 percent of residents have income at or below the federal poverty levels) and “low-access” areas (places where at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population live more than a mile away from a grocery store).

Low-Income, Local Impact on Poverty
Based on 2009 figures, the median household income for Missouri is $45,229. The estimated median household income (in 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars) is $44,436 for Kansas City.

According to a study based on the 2009 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Missouri’s poverty rate rose 1.2 percentage points to 14.6 percent in 2009. Approximately 365,000 Kansans and 849,000 Missourians lived in poverty in 2009. An estimated 111,357 families in Kansas City, Missouri live below the poverty level (73,170 married couple families; 29,911 families with a female as head of the household and no husband present).

Definition of a Food Desert
According to the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) Working Group, a food desert is a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Several tracts in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area fall into this category. To qualify as low-income, census tracts must meet the Treasury Department’s New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program eligibility criteria. Click the link for more information on the NMTC’s definition of low-income census tract. Furthermore, to qualify as a food desert tract, at least 33 percent of the tract’s population or a minimum of 500 people in the tract must have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.

Food Deserts in Kansas City
The sizable population of Kansas City families that can be classified as at or below poverty level raises concern. More pointedly, a significant portion of these people don’t have ready access to a supermarket or grocery store. Visually, the Food Desert Locator map enables us to zoom in on specific tracts in counties in question that make up a major portion of the metro area. Users can even search for a specific area and zoom down to street level. Pop-ups display population statistics, such as the percentage and number of people who are low-income and have limited access to grocery outlets, or the number of low-access households without a car. More ambitious users can download complete data on the state, city, and county level and crunch numbers.

The proliferation of pink zones or food deserts is surprising in the greater Kansas City metro area map. Food deserts are evident in stretches of Jackson County in northeastern Kansas City, but also across the river in the Northland. Huge swaths cover southern and eastern Jackson County. Pockets can be found outside of Independence as well as on the Kansas side of the state line in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.

Based on data from the Food Desert Locator, over 10,000 people populate three urbanized tracts identified in Clay County. Nearly 4100 people in that group have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store; 3200 of them are low-income residents. Low access to a healthy food retail outlet is defined as more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store in urban areas and as more than ten miles from a supermarket or large grocery store in rural areas.

Moving to Jackson County, the map data tabulates that over 83,000 people live in 33 identified urbanized tract areas. Of that population, over 48,000 people have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. 18, 740 people in that group are considered low-income.

Nationally, roughly 75 percent of these food-desert tracts are urban, while the remaining 25 percent are rural. An estimated total of 13.5 million people in these census tracts have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store—that is, they live more than 1 or 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store. Of these 13.5 million people, 82.1 percent are in urban areas.

What do these numbers mean for the poor in Kansas City?

Some thoughts:

• Easier access to fresh and affordable healthy food is needed at numerous key locations throughout the greater KC metro.

• Access to and distribution of this food at supermarkets and grocery stores can be supplemented by more farmers markets, neighborhood gardens, and local retail/corner shops that serve their community especially in urban settings.

• Farm to Street Corner – The farm to table trend is admirable for getting fresh locally grown and produced food and products to consumers through event dinners, farmers markets, and community supported agriculture programs (CSAs). Another trend taking root in Kansas City are food trucks positioned to sell everything – snowcones (Fresher Than Fresh), cupcakes and coffee (CoffeeCakeKC), meatballs (Magical Meatball Tour), gourmet tacos (Port Fonda), etc. Why not have Farm Fresh Food Trucks with fresh harvested produce and goods (honey, preserves) that make regular stops in designated areas around town that need better access to whole foods?

Resources
Many existing local organizations, programs and studies work hard to fight hunger and provide access to food at different levels of the community – schools, food banks, markets, farms and kitchens. Here’s a list of resources to learn more about the connections between food and community.

KC Healthy Kids – www.kchealthykids.org/
A nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing obesity and improving the health of Greater Kansas City’s children.

Kansas City Community Gardens – www.kccg.org/
This organization provides self-help and educational assistance to low-income people, children and community groups in the metropolitan area to grow their own food from garden plots located in backyards, vacant lots, schoolyards and at community sites.

Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition – http://kcfoodpolicy.ning.com/
The Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition is an alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses and government representatives representing all critical components of our local food system.

Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture – www.kccua.org
Promoting small-scale, community-based, entrepreneurial farming in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Kansas City Food Circle – www.kcfoodcircle.org
http://www.kcfoodcircle.org/markets/
The Kansas City Food Circle is an all-volunteer, grassroots organization created to promote the development of a permanently sustainable local food system. We serve the greater Kansas City area (eaters and growers in Missouri, Kansas, and reaching out to nearby communities in Nebraska and Iowa) providing an alternative to the conventional agricultural system.

Model for a Local Food Buying Club – www.kcfoodcircle.org/resources/model-buying-club/

Harvesters – www.harvesters.org
Harvesters’ mission is to feed hungry people today and work to end hunger tomorrow. As this area’s only food bank, Harvesters is a clearinghouse for the collection and distribution of food and related household products.

Missouri Farmers Market Directory – http://agebb.missouri.edu/fmktdir/view.asp?region=3

A tip of the hat to Fast Company Design’s Infographic of the Day for inspiring this article.