By Jenny Connelly-Bowen, CBN Graduate Research Assistant

This week, we’re sharing a map that was sent to us by Aaron McMullin, Executive Director of the Jacoby Arts Center. The map plots various food access points in St. Louis City—retail locations that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as payment, food pantries, and gardens—against census tract poverty levels. It was created in partnership with St. Louis University (SLU) FoodCorps, a community-based initiative that works to connect low-income neighborhoods and their residents to healthy food.

How does food access interact with community development? Geographical disparities in food access have been linked to a variety of equity and health problems. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 defined a food desert as “an area in the United States with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly such an area composed of predominantly lower-income neighborhoods and communities.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) generally classifies an urban neighborhood as a low food access area if it is located more than one mile from a full-service supermarket (low access rural areas are located more than ten miles from a full-service supermarket).

Both low food access and low food security affect certain populations more than others. The USDA broadly defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life,” which encompasses both adequate calorie intake and dignified access to safe, nutritious food. Certain groups face higher risk for food insecurity, including low-income populations, minorities, and families with children. In 2014, the following U.S. households had rates of food insecurity that were above the national average of 14 percent:

  • Households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold (33.7 percent)
  • Black, non-Hispanic households (26.1 percent)
  • Hispanic households (22.4 percent)
  • Households with children (19.2 percent)

Food insecurity is a growing problem in Missouri, where the rate of food insecurity (16.8 percent) was above the national average in 2014. The Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security at the University of Missouri–Columbia reported this year that between the periods of 2002-04 and 2012-14, Missouri experienced the largest average percentage increase in the country in population classified as very food insecure. Households with low food security are more likely to be participating in Federal food assistance programs and to report “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.” Research traces a variety of health problems to poor diet, including cancer, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease. Obesity is also frequently linked to food insecurity via the nutrient-sparse, energy-dense foods that tend to be less expensive than healthier foods in the U.S.

What sort of diet is immediately accessible to residents of different St. Louis neighborhoods? On the map below, we can examine how food access and poverty intersect and overlap in the St. Louis region. You can click on an individual census tract area to view that tract’s census tract number, poverty level, median household income, and tract percentage of households receiving SNAP benefits. Some of the highest-poverty tracts shown have no supermarkets, small grocery stores, discount stores, or supercenters located within the tract. One notable exception includes some of the South City neighborhoods surrounding South Grand, where there appears to be an unusually high concentration of small grocery stores.

To see maps from previous editions of the Community Builders Exchange, click here.