About the Atlas


Limited access to supermarkets, supercenters, grocery stores, or other sources of healthy and affordable food may make it harder for some people to eat a healthy diet in this country.  Expanding the availability of nutritious and affordable food by developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner markets and farmers’ markets in communities with limited access is an important part of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

There are many ways to define which areas are considered low income and low access (formerly referred to at the Economic Research Service as "food deserts") and many ways to measure food store access for individuals and for neighborhoods. Most measures and definitions consider at least some of the following indicators of access:

  • Accessibility to sources of healthy food, as measured by distance to a store or by the number of stores in an area;
  • Individual-level resources that may affect accessibility, such as family income or vehicle availability; and
  • Neighborhood-level indicators of resources, such as the average income of the neighborhood and the availability of public transportation.  

In the Food Access Research Atlas, several options are available to describe food access along these dimensions.

The Economic Research Service's Food Access Research Atlas was built using Environmental Systems Research Inc. (ESRI) ArcGIS Server technology. The background topographic and satellite maps, as well as the address locator service, were also provided by ESRI.

Measures of food access

The Food Access Research Atlas maps food access indicators for census tracts using ½-mile and 1-mile demarcations to the nearest supermarket for urban areas, 10-mile and 20-mile demarcations to the nearest supermarket for rural areas, and vehicle availability for all tracts. Atlas users can view census tracts by food access indicators using these different measures to see how the map changes as the distance demarcation or inclusion of vehicle access changes. The map includes updated estimates using 2019 data and allows users to compare these new estimates with those from 2015.

Data availability and updates

Estimates in the Atlas for 2019 are based on a 2019 list of supermarkets, the 2010 Decennial Census, and the 2014-18 American Community Survey (ACS). The estimates for 2015 are based on a 2015 list of supermarkets, the 2010 Decennial Census, and the 2010-14 ACS.

How is the Food Access Research Atlas related to the Food Environment Atlas?

The Food Access Research Atlas maps and provides selected food access indicators for census tracts. The Food Environment Atlas provides a wider set of statistics on food choices, health and well-being, and community characteristics. The Food Access Research Atlas provides information at the census-tract level; the smallest geographic level of data in the Food Environment Atlas is the county. The Food Environment Atlas also has an advanced query tool that allows users to identify and map counties sharing the same degree of multiple indicators.

Recommended citation

Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food Access Research Atlas, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/