Research continues to show that obesity is related to not only individual lifestyle choices, but also environmental factors like access to grocery stores and fast food restaurants and income and poverty level. These factors collectively define a county's "food environment," which can shed light on access to affordable healthy food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed an online Environment Food Atlas which assembles statistics on three broad categories of food environment factors:
Food Choices—Indicators of the community's access to and acquisition of healthy, affordable food, such as: access and proximity to a grocery store; number of foodstores and restaurants; expenditures on fast foods; food and nutrition assistance program participation; quantities of foods eaten; food prices; food taxes; and availability of local foods
Health and Well-Being—Indicators of the community’s success in maintaining healthy diets, such as: food insecurity; diabetes and obesity rates; and physical activity levels
Community Characteristics—Indicators of community characteristics that might influence the food environment, such as: demographic composition; income and poverty; population loss; metro-nonmetro status; natural amenities; and recreation and fitness centers
The Atlas currently includes 168 indicators of the food environment. The year and geographic level of the indicators vary to better accommodate data from a variety of sources. Some data are from the last Census of Population in 2000 while others are as recent as 2009. Some are at the county level while others are at the State or regional level.
Give it a try! Go to the Environment Food Atlas. Click on "Enter Atlas." Select your state at the top left corner of the map. Then click on an environmental factor like "Availability of Restaurants" then "Fast Food Restaurants/1,000 pop 2008. Do the same with "Access and Proximity to Grocery Store" then "% households no car & >1 mi to store." Now you can see areas in your state where people are likely making poor food choices because of where they live! If you didn't have a car, lived down the block from a fast food restaurant, and several miles from a grocery store wouldn't you have a much harder time making healthy choices?
USDA's Your Food Environment Atlas paints a picture of how environmental factors influence food choices, and ultimately health and well-being. We can tell people again and again to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but if they're not able to easily access and afford them, they're not likely to buy them.
Play around with the Environment Food Atlas to see which areas of your state make healthy eating and physical activity easier. Which areas have a food environment that is not conducive to healthy lifestyle behaviors?