Mapping Homegrown Solutions for Healthy Food Access

Anna Aspenson 

February 24, 2022

Mapping regional food systems provides a birds-eye view of the complex relationships of community food access and food production. Between January 2020 and September 2021, Croatan Institute joined the Healthy Food Access Mapping (Healthy FAM) team with community stakeholders in the five-county Upper Coastal Plain region of North Carolina, comprising Edgecombe, Halifax, Nash, Northampton, and Wilson counties. This project was led by the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments and supported by the K.B. Reynolds Foundation, in partnership with place-based organizations such as Working Landscapes and Project Momentum, as well as 350 residents and community representatives who participated in surveys, interviews, and engagements. 

Here, I will discuss some of the public health and community approaches to food system mapping that helped establish the Healthy FAM collaborative research process and recommendations. Recent research has explored innovative ways to visualize food injustice and the Healthy FAM project provides a unique approach to mapping community food production assets. Through deep community engagement and participatory mapping, we can guide investment through a strengths-based and community-driven approach.

Community-led groups initiated the Healthy FAM project to co-create a data tool that would provide transparency and insight into the region’s food value chain. Some features of the regional map include farms and gardens, grocery and retail, emergency food resources, food processing infrastructure, and institutional buyers. Healthy FAM participants, such as Just Foods Collaborative and Roanoke Valley Community Health Initiative, maintain that these maps can help us to visualize geographic patterns, such as racial disparities and value chain gaps, to advocate for investment in systemically underinvested communities. The Healthy FAM team recently published the interactive map, story map, and assessment report, which outline the project’s findings and recommendations.

Mapping food access gaps 

Healthy FAM data shows that areas with higher poverty and predominantly Black neighborhoods have limited access to healthy food, compared to higher income or predominantly white areas. A Healthy FAM community survey revealed that Halifax county residents have the longest average travel time to a grocery store in the region, at 22 minutes. In Edgecombe county, only 20% of food retail locations sell fresh produce, compared to 74% in Wilson County. The map below uses data from the USDA Food Access Research Atlas and shows that the area around Northampton, Halifax, and Edgecombe counties has the widest stretch of Black residents living beyond ½ mile from a supermarket in the state. These racial disparities and spatial gaps in healthy food retail are commonly referred to as “food deserts,” or an area of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods with limited access to affordable or nutritious food.[1] Defining an area as a food desert often includes counting grocery locations that stock fruits, vegetables, and other staples, the population of low-income households, and access to a vehicle.[2] However, some food access advocates have suggested a whole-systems based approach to mapping food security.[2] 

In recent decades, much of the attention and research regarding food access disparities has focused around these spatial definitions of food deserts. A USDA food desert map identifies 10% of census tracts in the US as low-income areas where “a substantial number or substantial share of residents does not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store”.[3] A 2014 study of census and food store data found that areas with higher poverty had fewer supermarkets and more convenience stores.[4] Furthermore, the study found that among areas with the same poverty level, predominantly Black neighborhoods had the fewest supermarkets and predominantly white areas had the most.[4] 

Creating and sharing a range of nutritional, flavorful, and culturally rich food experiences is essential for our physical, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Lack of access to healthy foods (along with the stressors of food insecurity) puts individuals at increased risk of chronic inflammation and diet-related disease, such as heart disease, certain cancers, adverse mental health, and musculoskeletal disorders.[5] These health concerns also pose additional risks related to Covid-19 and contribute to ongoing racial health disparities.[6]

A 2021 report from the Brookings Institution looked at the relationship between the term “food desert” and food access mapping research. The authors, Caroline George and Adie Tomer, found that while the narrative around food deserts has brought necessary attention to the effects of structural racism on food security and health disparities, it also reflects a deficit-based approach and highlights limitations in food system mapping and policy.[1] A 2019 study by Kathryn Teigen De Master and Jess Daniels proposes food justice mapping strategies that frame communities as places with strengths and assets, rather than needs and deficits.[2]

A deficit-based approach can lead to policies that rely on existing power imbalances and exclude local assets (such as community food security efforts, organizing groups, small grocers, and local farms).[1][2] Mapping household proximity to grocery stores can also leave out the logistical realities of household retail choices and preferences.[1] For example, findings from the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) found that proximity to supermarkets has limited impact on food choices, instead “neighborhood resources, education, and taste preferences may be more important determinants of food choice”.[7]

Much of the policy efforts in recent decades have focused on incentivizing the development of supermarkets in areas designated as food deserts.[8] This approach relies on outside corporate actors to solve the disparity problem.[2] A 2018 study reviewed research evaluating these incentive policies’ effect on health and food security. Authors Nathan A. Rosenberg and Nevin Cohen found that millions of public dollars from these policies have had little success in improving health disparities in those areas.[8] 

Rosenberg and Cohen also argue that these incentives for new supermarkets obscure underlying issues of poverty and racism and detract from more effective strategies, like expanding SNAP benefits.[8] In response to issues such as these, the concept of “food apartheid” has become widely accepted as a term that places these racial and economic realities at the center of food access discourse, emphasizing community power, strength, and the right to food sovereignty. One aspect of food sovereignty is local determination of food production and healthy food outlets. A lender from Self-Help Credit Union described their approach to lending for local food retail, “We’ve learned that access is not sufficient and it doesn’t transform into wealth in communities served by a grocery store…Self-Help believes that ownership matters…It’s not about making food available, it’s about who owns the food, who owns the grocery, and also who is able to access it.”[9] 

Spatial data patterns are useful tools, but planning for community investments should be grounded in the day-to-day realities and community visions, not just a birds-eye view. Food access interventions should work to address income and racial equity, along with access to regional foods and agricultural business development. This helps to answer questions like, “what connects one point on the map to another?”. Healthy FAM participants worked to answer these questions, in order to pose regionally-specific investment solutions. 

Mapping food access solutions 

The Healthy FAM food system map helps to take stock of the regional food environment’s gaps and opportunities to define connections where local food production can provide affordable healthy food and grow community wealth. The Healthy FAM maps explore assets related to local food production, distribution, processing, and institutional buyers. 

There is limited access to healthy food in the more economically distressed areas of the Upper Coastal Plain, including Northampton, Halifax, and Edgecombe counties. At the same time, these counties have some of the highest concentration of Black producers in the state. Therefore, Black producers and Black land ownership could be a crucial asset for investment in the region. Fourtee Acres Farm, a 45-acre Black-owned family farm in Halifax County, sells fresh produce directly to consumer outlets like farmers markets and box programs. However, they say they face barriers to enter into larger regional markets and buyers. Small and midsize producers, such as Fourtee Acres, may face costly certification requirements, scale of production, and distribution challenges to reach wider markets. 

The Healthy FAM value chain asset maps of aggregators and distributors can help to identify connections to bring local produce to larger institutional markets. For instance, the Down East Partnership for Children (DEPC) has explored a farm-to-childcare strategy with Golden Organic Farm and Ripe Revival Market that could bring fresh, local produce to childcare centers that typically source from big-box stores. 

The Healthy FAM team proposed a wide range of recommendations to guide investments in community planning and regional healthy food infrastructure. We assert that groups should consider using a Whole Measures, community-oriented framework to support all elements of a sustainable, healthy food system: Justice and Fairness, Strong Communities, Vibrant Farms and Gardens, Healthy People, Sustainable Ecosystems, and Thriving Local Economies.

With this framework, efforts to grow regional food networks should support rural wellbeing and wealth building. For example, investors and practitioners should work with small and mid-size farmers producing fresh fruits and vegetables, pastured meats, and healthy grains to provide appropriate financing solutions and technical assistance. Communities and funders can also work with farmers to create opportunities to reach larger markets, such as institutional buyers, to increase cash flow. This can introduce the flexibility to feed their communities while maintaining a stable income. These strategies should also incorporate multiple funding mechanisms and non-extractive finance* options, such as community development finance, impact investing, Slow Money, philanthropy, and public dollars. 

This work to support regional value chains of healthy and regeneratively-grown products is part of Croatan Institute’s ongoing work to develop innovative finance models to build racial equity and ecological resilience. Traditional financing models have systematically disadvantaged and excluded BIPOC producers, neighborhoods, and households. Establishing regional connections and value chains can work to bring both affordable, fresh food and agricultural jobs to these areas. These place-based efforts, like Healthy FAM, can map a region’s existing healthy food assets, while working with community leaders and stakeholders to identify the connections and opportunities to generate greater economic benefit across the region – from producers to families. 

The Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments Healthy FAM project was recently named a winner of a 2021 Aliceann Wohlbruck Impact Award from the National Association of Development Agencies (NADO). You can find the full report, story map, and interactive map at the HealthyFAM site here

*Cooperation Buffalo defines non-extractive finance as “no more repayment going to the provider of the finance than the surplus that is created by the borrower’s use of the loan. If no surplus is created, nothing is returned to the lender.”

[1] George C, Tomer A. Beyond ‘Food Deserts’: America Needs a New Approach to Mapping Food Insecurity. Brookings Institute; 2021. 

[2] De Master KT, Daniels J. Desert wonderings: reimagining food access mapping. Agric Hum Values. 2019;36(2):241-256.

[3] Interactive Web Tool Maps Food Deserts, Provides Key Data. USDA ERS. Published April 30, 2021.

[4] Bower KM, Thorpe RJ, Rohde C, Gaskin DJ. The Intersection of Neighborhood Racial Segregation, Poverty, and Urbanicity and its Impact on Food Store Availability in the United States. Prev Med. 2014;58:33-39. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2013.10.010

[5] Phillips CM, Chen LW, Heude B, et al. Dietary Inflammatory Index and Non-Communicable Disease Risk: A Narrative Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1873. doi:10.3390/nu11081873

[6] Terhune C, Respaut R. Exclusive: U.S. diabetes deaths top 100,000 for second straight year. Reuters. Published January 31, 2022. 

[7] Ver Ploeg M, Rahkovsky I. Recent Evidence on the Effects of Food Store Access on Food Choice and Diet Quality. USDA ERS. Published May 2, 2016.

[8] Rosenberg N, Cohen N. Let Them Eat Kale: The Misplaced Narrative of Food Access. Fordham Urban Law J. 2018;45(4):1091.

[9] Mandela Marketplace – Oakland – California FreshWorks. California FreshWorks.