The API Briefing: Mapping Food Deserts – The USDA Economic Research Service’s GIS Map Services

Jul 23, 2014
Shoppers and produce at a Winter Park, Florida Farmers Market

Food deserts are areas where residents have little or no access to nutritional food. Food deserts exist because of low-incomes, lack of transportation, or too few stores that stock produce and other healthy food items. Governments from the local level to federal have implemented grant programs to encourage grocery store construction in the food deserts. Community activists have also worked to create food co-ops and encourage farmer markets to target the food deserts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is leading the federal effort to combat food deserts through grants and education. A vital part of this effort is a set of geospatial APIs provided by the Economic Research Service, which provides over 30 map services. One app based on the ERS Map APIs is the Food Environment Atlas, which presents the healthy food options in the community. The Food Access Research Atlas displays similar information, but categorizes it by census tracts and income indicators.

Both of these atlases are excellent resources for researchers, governments, and activists who want to study and eliminate food deserts. Like many of the APIs showcased in earlier columns, the USDA ERS’ APIs can be accessed through XML or JSON feeds. The Developer page also offers code snippets to help in the creation of apps based on the numerous APIs offered by the ERS. I can already think of one app where a developer can combine the USDA’s Farmers Market API with the Food Access Research Atlas to suggest new places to locate farmers markets.Each week in “The API Briefing,” I will showcase government APIs and the latest API news and trends. Visit this blog every week to learn how government APIs are transforming government and improving government services for the American people. If you have ideas for a topic or have questions about APIs, please contact me via email. Dr. William A. Brantley, PMP, is a Program Analyst, in Forecasting and Methods at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). You can find out more about his work in this space at