Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted updates to an online mapping tool that compares U.S. counties in terms of their "food environment" – the set of factors that help determine and reflect a community's access to affordable, healthy food. The "U.S. Food Environment Atlas," developed by USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS), was introduced last year as part of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative to solve the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation. Vilsack discussed the tool as he spoke to the United States Conference of Mayors and laid out steps that they could take to improve health and nutrition in their communities.
"This Food Atlas is an important tool to help guide policy makers and researchers in addressing the links between diet, food access, and public health, and the new upgrades shed additional light on food environments across the United States and provides an even broader overview of a community's ability to access healthy foods," said Vilsack.
The updated Atlas assembles 168 indicators of the food environment, up from the original 90, measuring factors such as availability of food stores and restaurants, food prices, socioeconomic characteristics, and health outcomes. Since its release in February 2010, the Atlas website has received over 120,000 visits, making it one of USDA's most popular data products.
With the Atlas, users can visualize and geographically compare a wide range of demographic, health, and food-access characteristics (e.g., household income, adult diabetes rates, and proximity to grocery stores). The update includes 40 indicators for which updated data are available and adds a number of new indicators, including 34 that measure change over time and four that reflect food access. The new indicators provide information on the number and percentage of households in a county that are either low-income or do not own a car, and that also live more than ten miles from a grocery store. For rural areas, these numbers provide a better measure of food access than the original Atlas, which provided information only for households located one mile from a grocery store.
The Atlas allows users to select an indicator - for example, the prevalence of pre-school obesity - and to create a map showing how obesity levels vary across the United States or across a state. Atlas users can identify counties with a combination of indicators - for example, those with persistent child poverty as well as high numbers of residents with poor access to full-service grocery stores. The Atlas also allows users to obtain data on any and all of the indicators for a particular county.
In addition to USDA's Economic Research Service, numerous institutions contributed to the data in the Atlas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided the statistics on obesity and diabetes; the National Cancer Institute provided indicators on physical activity and recreation centers; USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service provided indicators on farmers' markets; USDA's Food and Nutrition Service provided information on State-level food and nutrition assistance program participation; and the National Farm-to-School Network provided statistics on farm-to-school programs.
The U.S. Food Environment Atlas is available at http://www.ers.usda.gov/FoodAtlas/.