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Tech-Friendly: Food desert map of Rockford

May 6, 2014
Paul Gorski

Paul Gorski

By Paul Gorski

Jim Hagerty’s article, “Schnucks to close two Rockford stores,” May 1, 2014 (http://rockrivertimes.com/2014/05/01/schnucks-to-close-two-rockford-stores/#comment-34778) sparked an online discussion about what is, and is not, a “food desert.” Inspired by the discussion, I found an online tool that maps food deserts.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “food deserts” in general: “as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” See: http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-deserts for the quote, a general overview of food deserts, and additional nutritional information.

The USDA’s specific, detailed description of a food desert involves population density and distance from a grocery store. Reader Jon Weber tried building his own food desert map using some of these same principles, and posted it to the article, noted above, as an online comment. However, the USDA has already developed a food desert map. That mapping tool is at: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/#.U2kqKC9M7Eg.

The USDA food desert map tool is not the most intuitive online map tool I have seen. I found that the easiest way to use the map is to enter a local address using the “Find Address” button, and the map will zoom to a reasonably sized region around that map. Entering “100 S. Main St., Rockford, IL” provides a graphical overview of the food deserts in Rockford.

The USDA food desert map uses some technical language to describe and identify local food deserts. Suffice to say, we have areas on the west side, southeast side, and a couple of pockets on the north side of the city that are lacking access to fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. These are not my opinions, but rather the results drawn on the map. As far as the USDA is concerned, you should not need access to a car to get to a grocery store that sells fresh fruit, vegetables and meats, in addition to other food basics. Based on that premise, I can understand why some of these areas have been identified as food deserts.

This was a reader-inspired column! Thank you for your comments to the Schnucks store closing article, and thank you in advance for any comments made regarding this column. Again, I encourage you to visit http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/fooddesert/#.U2kqKC9M7Eg to learn more about local and national “food deserts.” You may not agree with the map results; if not, contact the USDA.

Paul Gorski (www.paulgorski.com) has been a technology manager nearly 20 years, specializing in workflow solutions for printing, publishing and advertising computer users. Originally destined to be a chemist, his interest in computers began in college when he wrote a program to analyze data from lab instruments he hard-wired to the back of an Apple Iie.

Posted May 6, 2014

2 Comments

  1. Jon Weber

    May 7, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Although I appreciate you noting the USDA map, my map shows a bit different data than the USDA map does, Paul.

    For example, the USDA map shows census tracts overlayed with income and various distances while my map shows where Rockford-area grocery stores are located.

    Additionally, while the USDA map is good for those wanting to study a larger area, mine is better for those who actually need to eat or buy healthy food.

    We can debate semantics of food deserts and data until we are both blue in the face, but the debating will not get food into the local areas which need it or want it, nor direct those looking to buy it into a store which sells it. I’m not doubting the USDA’s data collection methodology – it works well for what it needs to accomplish, but it does not work for the reasons which inspired me to make my map, which can be seen at the following URL:
    https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF&msa=0&msid=201724344534335216168.0004f8b2e76899d5bb57e

    Cheers,
    Jon Weber

    P.S. If this sort of data interests you, consider attending one of the meetings for Code For Rockford, a Code For America Brigade. Meetings are held the second Saturdays of each month at EIGERLAB at 9 a.m. Details at: http://www.codeforrockford.com

  2. Paul Gorski

    May 10, 2014 at 1:05 am

    Jon,

    Our goals were different. My goal was to clarify what a food desert is. There is a definition; its out there. There is a map too.

    Yes, your map identifies local grocery stores. It looks like you spent some time customizing it, but if I was building such a map to identify stores that address the food desert issue, I wouldn’t have included some of the stores you included. I’d eliminate about half of them.

    The USDA map qualifies regions where stores carry fresh fruit and vegetables, not only dry goods. (No it doesn’t actually show the stores, which is odd.) Some of the stores you include only have a limited supply of fresh food.

    In addition, a family of four may not be able to do all their shopping at the store, as some are specialty stores. That’s not to say that some of the specialty stores aren’t nice, but I’d only include full service markets in a food desert map.

    If you are mapping grocery stores, not necessarily full service markets, you could add the Polish Deli and the local Targets.

    I live in one of the food desert areas. I’m lucky enough to have a car, so we drive to Woodman’s and Pinnon’s. Not everyone has a car though, and public transportation in this region is poor. Many local residents find it difficult to travel to a full service market.

    Take a look at your map. Harrison and S. Alpine. When the Schnuck’s closes there, where is there a full service market that a person can get to on foot or by public transportation in a reasonable amount of time? The same for 20th & Samuelson and W. State & Pierpont. And your map doesn’t show any grocery stores near Machesney Park Mall. I’m thinking that is wrong, but maybe not.

    Back to your goal: unfortunately the only way to get more grocery stores into certain areas is “rooftops.” Store development follows new housing development and high traffic patterns. Look at your map: most of the stores are near State St and Riverside. Neighborhood stores are a vanishing breed, like neighborhood schools. Locally, I blame that on poor urban planning.

    As far as directing people to stores and healthy food; that’s not a purely objective task. Suffice to say we all have our favorite stores and others which we choose not to patronize. I recommend Woodman’s and Pinnon’s. Close friends like Longwood Market and 640 Meats.

    On yet another topic: Thanks for the meeting invite. I’m booked Saturday mornings. Also, from what I understand the code project is mostly concerned with collecting and displaying data. I don’t have a problem finding data, I have a problem finding peer-reviewed data, and or peer-reviewed analyses of that data. As a teacher once told me “facts don’t lie, but the people reporting them do.” Check sources, methods of collection and the basis of an analysis.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Take care,
    Paul Gorski

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