Food and data lovers, prepare to lose an afternoon: This week the USDA put out a new “Food Environment Atlas,” a geographic display of a whole host of different food statistics across the US (warning: the site is quite buggy right now). Better yet, the underlying data is available in one easy spot.
This tool has it all: proximity to grocery stores vs. restaurants, spending at restaurants (fast food vs. full service), food eaten at home, health statistics, socioeconomic characteristics, and even food prices and taxes. For example, here’s a graph by county of the percent of low-income families who live more than one mile from a grocery store (dark red represents higher percentages):
Washington and Oregon’s metropolitan counties (King and Multnomah) rank fairly well—43rd and 50th, respectively (out of 3,200 counties in total), with only 3 percent of low-income families living farther than one mile from a grocery store. Another interesting fact, Idaho has the 6th lowest expenditures on fast food, per capita—but Idahoans love their packaged sweets and prepared food from the grocery store.
While I’ve got your attention check out this TED talk by Jamie Oliver from earlier this month. He covers the obesity epidemic—especially focusing on childhood obesity—and the cultural shift away from home cooking, augmented by a shift in land use away from grocery stores and access to local, fresh food:
Among others, he’s got a great idea for a “Food Ambassadors” program, where every grocery store has someone on hand to answer questions and help guide smart food choices. It reminds me a bit of the “Energy Concierge” idea Roger’s posted about before: a central source to provide information and guidance that leads to better decision making. Only in the case of energy efficiency the concierge guides people through a new, complex web of programs and options, while the ambassador helps bring people back to food knowledge that’s been lost in the last couple of generations.
Lastly, I’ll mention today’s top story on Sightline Daily (Sightline’s sustainability news service. Check it out at the top of your page). Lawmakers in California are considering a bill to allow food stamps at farmer’s markets (not surprising, considering Los Angeles and San Diego counties rank first and third for number of farmers’ markets per county. It seems like a great idea to me; when we provide folks with the means to purchase food, we ought to give them access to smart choices, too.
It’s interesting that they put in fast food vs. sit down restaurants. I don’t think many nutritionists would say that a foie gras burger from Le Grand Poobah is a “smarter choice” than a Big Mac (and to be realistic, I imagine that in most of the country the sit down restaurant is Applebees). It seems more of a marker of income than anything else, which would support the point of view that the best “choice” you can make for your health is to not be poor.And I don’t know if there’s a shift in land use away from grocery stores (maybe he’s talking about the UK instead of the US, of course). It seems like the most viable and visible retail businesses in your typical suburb or even urban residential neighborhoods are the mega-groceries (or the *Mart with a grocery store in it.).
I’d be curious to look at the health choices between fast food vs. sit-down restaurants. You’re right that it’s probably more of an indicator of income than anything else—but my hunch is that sit-down restaurants would still come out healthier overall—if not in straight calories and fat, than in less overly-processed and chemically-altered ingredients. If that’s the case, it still shows that low-income families have less access healthy food options.I wonder if his reference to a shift in land use refers more to the trend away from specialty shops (butchers, produce stands, corner marts) to one-stop mega-groceries.