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The USDA defines access to healthy foods (e.g., access to fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats, and legumes) using census tracts with a ½ mile and 1-mile in urban areas and a 10-mile and 20-mile radius in rural areas. Access to healthy foods is an important component of public health, and an entire suite of tools are available to help communities improve food access for all the residents of the area.

The Healthy Food Access Portal (created by PolicyLink, The Food Trust, and the Reinvestment Fund, and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) is a resource supporting communities seeking to launch healthy food retail projects. The portal compiles a vast amount of data and information to help with the implementation of policies, programs, and projects to improve healthy food access for low-income communities. Rationale for healthy food access projects, current and past policy efforts, tips for determining the best retail strategy for your area, basic information on how to get a retail or policy effort off the ground, as well as possible funding sources, are just some of the many resources available through the portal.

Why is this important to your community?

Many communities lack access to healthy, affordable, fresh food choices. More than 29.7 million people (as estimated by the USDA) live in low-income areas that are more than one mile from a supermarket. Persons living in these communities—often referred to as “food deserts”—often lack access to reliable transportation, thus encouraging them to rely on nearby fast food, liquor stores and convenience stores featuring unhealthy options for their food choices. The food desert designation uses a mixture of income levels and proximity to supermarkets, supercenters, or large grocery stores to define low food access. In the CONNECT region, 87 census tracts (15 percent of all census tracts in the region) have been identified as “food deserts” by USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas.

Lack of access to healthy food is a contributing factor to many chronic health problems, including diabetes and obesity—both major public health problems in the CONNECT region that can lead to even worse health issues. Lack of healthy food access particularly contributes to the health disparities seen in the CONNECT region. And, studies have shown that healthy food access projects not only increase the health of the community by expanding access to healthy food, they also revitalize local economies by growing businesses and increasing entrepreneurship.

Census tracts in the CONNECT region have been identified by the USDA as food deserts

How does it work?

The Healthy Food Access portal is a set of web based tools and data that serves as a resource for supporting communities in launching healthy food retail projects. Information is intended to help with the implementation of policies, programs, and projects to improve healthy food access for low-income communities. In the CONNECT region, the portal is supplemented by several reports provided by CONNECT Our Future’s Food Systems Work Group, that include specific local recommendations and resources to improve access to healthy foods.

Food availability is not the only factor that influences resident food purchasing behavior. When it comes to food choices, perceptions around social and cultural acceptability, knowledge of food and nutrition, methods of food preparation, and life experiences all play vital roles. For this reason, education and access to information can also play an important role in making healthy food choices. Positive experiences such as farm field trips, cooking demonstrations with seasonal ingredients, local food tastings, meet the farmer events, school gardens and other hands-on events influence the formation of food preferences and eating habits, develop local food and farm advocates and, in the long term, create healthier individuals and communities.

Ready to get started?

Using the Tool

  • Contact your local Food Policy Council or Farm and Foods Council, and Public Health Department, to get information on the status of food access, particularly healthy food access, in your area, and to learn about plans, projects and programs they may have in process to address food access.
  • Discuss your interest in addressing healthy food access concerns; this is a complex issue and supporters and champions are key to addressing it. Are there additional groups who could become involved to help make any proposed projects a success, or who could lend support to a comprehensive healthy food access campaign? Then:
    • Review the resources available on the portal at and the local resources listed in the CONNECT Food Systems reports (LINK).
    • Determine the best healthy food access retail strategy for your area, as a starting place use: and the reports above as a resource.
    • Include transportation providers in planning, to discuss means of improving access to existing retail outlets until additional outlets can be opened in underserved areas lacking transportation resources.
  • Research additional project partners by viewing the directory of local, state, and national organizations that are actively engaged in promoting healthy food access. Consider partnering with health providers, large employers, and school districts.
  • Institute policies and marketing strategies that increase access to and create awareness of healthy food. Examples of such policies and strategies include:
    • Work with local schools and institutions to facilitate rich learning environments that focus on local food and experiential instruction to promote healthy eating and positive associations with healthy food, leading to lifelong healthier eating and lifestyle habits.
    • Seek and channel funding and other kinds of support for programs, activities, resources, and educational materials that bring farmers and consumers into direct contact, increasing consumer knowledge and awareness of where food comes from, how it is produced, the impacts of the food system on communities and the environment, and the relationship between food and personal health: e.g., Farm to School, farm tours, farmers markets and CSAs, food and farm festivals, cooking demonstrations, public gardens, and public awareness campaigns.
    • Maintain and grow direct markets by promoting existing outlets and by providing workshops and training for farmers on relevant topics (salesmanship and display, best food safety practices, food regulation, marketing and promotion, etc.)
    • Partner with local media (television, radio, newspapers) and marketing agencies to promote what is being grown in the area and where it is being sold to community members, including existing direct-to-consumer outlets (farmers markets, CSAs, on-farm stores and stands), local grocers, restaurants, etc. Local and state food branding can be avenues to help customers identify locally grown food, add value to local farm products, and provide farmers with a means to increase their marketing power.
    • Support or organize opportunities to help less mobile residents access the transportation they need to shop for food.
    • Direct economic and equity policies toward building local wealth and raising people out of poverty as a means to increase their access to healthier foods.

Where has it worked?