The limitations that consumers face to accessing local food can be understood as an interaction of individual and environmental factors:
- “Socio-ecological model” This model describes consumers’ behavior and decision-making in terms of the interactions between individual and social/political factors.
- Individuals Some consumers have limited purchasing power and access to other resources, as well as skills, knowledge and attitudes about local food.
- “Food environment” This term refers to the availability and affordability of food within an individual’s surroundings. State and federal policies, as well as the norms of communities and organizations, determine what food is available at what outlets, and at what price.
Approaches to Analyzing Access
- Food Deserts According to the 2008 Farm Bill, food deserts are neighborhoods that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food and tend to be composed of low-income consumers.
- Relationship to Health Outcomes The research around the relationship between access to healthy food and health outcomes has mixed results, which is in part attributable to different methodologies and how the food environment is measured.
- Food Swamps Small-scale, corner stores that often sell unhealthy food can be present within food deserts, leading some to prefer the phrase “food swamps.”
- Transportation and Consumer Behavior New research has questioned the concept of food deserts and looked instead at consumer behavior, suggesting that many consumers don’t shop at the nearest supermarket. This research points to transportation as an important issue affecting consumer access to healthy food.
Examples of Projects and Programs
Although local food is not necessarily healthier than non-local food, many organizations are actively working to increase low-income consumer access to local food as a way to simultaneously introduce healthy food to these consumers and support local farmers and rural communities.
Popular interventions include:
- Supporting the use of Federal Assistance Programs at Farmers’ Markets (including incentive programs that match SNAP dollars)
- Targeting corner stores
- Working with institutional markets (Farm-to-School, Farm-to-Institution)
- Integrating local food in supermarkets
- School Gardens and Community Gardens
National Organizations and Projects:
- USDA’s Food Environment Atlas and Food Access Research Atlas These two tools present maps of the US that allow a user to see the data related to food environments and food access issues at multiple scales, including at the state and county level.
- The Food Trust Based in Philadelphia, the Food Trust has been working to increase low-income consumer access to healthy food for over 20 years. Many of their projects have been used as models for other cities or at the national level, including the “Philly Food Bucks” SNAP incentive program, Healthy Corner Store initiatives and Food Financing Initiatives (which provide loans to encourage supermarkets to open in underserved areas).
- Healthy Food in Health Care Healthy Food in Health Care (HFHC) is a national initiative of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), and is composed of numerous partner organizations. This initiative provides tools and resources for hospitals to change their sourcing practices, policies and menus.
- National Farm to School Network This national network provides resources and links to funding sources to help support farm to school programs.
- Healthy Food Access Portal This website provides resources specifically for communities to increase food access by working with retail strategies. A good source of research updates, grant/funding and policy information.
North Carolina Organizations and Projects:
- Community Transformation Grants Funded by the CDC and implemented by the Health Department, these regional projects are supporting farmers’ markets and targeting corner stores to promote healthy eating in NC.
- Come to the Table People of faith sustaining local farms and relieving hunger in NC.
University of North Carolina Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention This CDC Prevention Research Center has several projects focused on the connections between local foods and public health outcomes.
Extension Projects, Programs and Resources:
- Eat Smart, Move More NC This organization is focused on addressing obesity by working with communities, schools and businesses. They provide programs and tools to help create healthy food environments.
- Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) EFNEP is is a federally funded educational program conducted through the Cooperative Extension Service on a national scale. EFNEP helps limited resource youth and families with children learn how to eat healthier meals and snacks, stretch their food dollars and reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.
- NC Steps to Health The federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) serves limited resource individuals and families across North Carolina. NC Cooperative Extension’s SNAP-Ed Program is Steps to Health. Steps to Health provides nutrition education program for preschoolers, kindergarteners, 2nd grade students, 3rd grade students, adults, Latino families, and older adults.
NC Growing Together is a USDA funded research project that is implemented through the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). The goal of the project is to increase the incorporation of local food in mainstream markets, including supermarkets and the military. Resources are available for working with supermarkets to increase their procurement of local food.
Appalachian Foodshed Project Collaborative USDA-funded project led by Virginia Tech that is using a foodshed concept to address issues of community food security in West Virginia and the Appalachian regions of North Carolina and Virginia.
- Voices into Action A USDA-funded project that uses a community-based research approach to reducing childhood obesity in low-income populations in Wake, Lee and Harnett Counties.
- Share the Harvest of Guilford County Donation-focused community gardens.
- Farm to Childcare, Wake County A collaboration between Wake County Extension and Advocates for Health in Action (AHA) that works to connect local farmers and childcare facilitites.
- Grow For It This 4-H program provides resources to help youth and educators connect to agricultural issues. Resources include enrichment curricula, growing strawberry gardens, junior master gardeners programs, and vermicomposting.
Food Corps Food Corps is hosted by 4-H and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and places food leaders in communities for a year of service. Service focuses on teaching kids about healthy food, managing school gardens, and supporting local food in cafeterias.
Reports and Tools:
- Community Food Security Assessment Tool A toolkit of standardized measurement tools for assessing various aspects of community food security.
- Step-by-Step Handbook to accept SNAP-EBT at Farmers’ Markets Resource developed through the North Carolina Community Transformation Grant. (For more local food access resources for Farmers Markets, see this page)
- Nutrition Environment Measurement Surveys (NEMS) These surveys are the standard tool used to assess the availability and affordability of healthy items, compared to less healthy choices, at supermarkets, corner stores, restaurants, and other outlets in the Food Environment.
- Seasonal Guide for North Carolina The 10% Campaign’s guide for what fruit, nuts, vegetables and seafood are available by season in North Carolina.
- The Produce Lady This Cooperative Extension-based project provides video demonstrations, recipes, and tips for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, especially at farmers’ markets.
- SNAP-ED Connection: Nutrition Through the Seasons A resource with recipes and resources for seasonal produce on a national level, including information about food safety, preservation and gardening.
- Healthy, Fresh, Local Food: An Action Plan for Increasing Availability and Access in Beaufort County, NC Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, 2013.
- National Farm-to-School Training Templates for Schools and Pre-Schools Resources for educators, child nutrition directors, farmers and early child educators, including customizable slide deck, speaker notes, handouts and an evaluation form for training sessions.
Assistant Professor and Local Foods Extension Specialist
Dept. of 4-H, Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences
NC State University