The concept of a “food desert“—a place where residents have little access to healthy, affordable food—can seem somewhat alien to the well-off. If you’ve got your own car, living close to a grocery store just doesn’t matter much: you can always drive a bit and stock up with a big load of groceries! But if you don’t have a car, fresh, healthy food is often simply out of reach. Taking a cab to the store is expensive; walking or transit can take too much time, or simply be too much of a hassle. So for many car-free folks living in food deserts, the only real options are processed foods from convenience stores, or else fast food meals—typically, the sort of inexpensive, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that contribute to North America’s obesity epidemic.

But even though there’s an emerging understanding that food deserts are a significant public health concern, there’s little academic consensus on how to define and identify them…which can make it hard for policymakers to even find food deserts, let alone decide what sorts of policies might help fight them.

Enter Walk Score. They’ve constructed a new tool that offers basic maps of food deserts: places where residents can’t get to a full-service grocery store within a 5 minute walk. The tool could make a huge contribution to the healthy food movement, since it gives everyone—policymakers, activists, and ordinary citizens alike—a simple measure and a starting point for a discussion about food access.

Just as important, Walk Score’s tools introduce a bit of healthy competition into the food desert discussion.  Take a look, for example, at the three largest cities in the Pacific Northwest.

Cascadia big city food deserts


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    Thanks to Randy S. Self for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • As the maps show, Vancouver, BC is the region’s clear leader in food access: a clear majority of Vancouverites live within a 5 minute walk of a grocery store. By contrast, in both Seattle and Portland, the figure is between a quarter and a third. But Vancouver, BC, isn’t just a regional standout: if the city were in the US, it would rank #4 for food access in the country, trailing only New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

    But while Portland and Seattle both trail Vancouver, they’re well ahead of America’s food desert laggards. In Indianapolis and Oklahoma City, by Walk Score’s reckoning, only one resident out of twenty lives within easy walking distance of a grocery store.

    Of course, measuring food deserts is just the first step. The real point is to do something about them. Still, it’s a vital first step: if you don’t measure food deserts, policymakers will have no idea where to focus their attention, and no inkling of whether the steps they’re taking are doing any good. As they say, “what gets measured gets fixed.”

    Here’s hoping that this is one problem where better measurement can lead to better policy.