*Names in bold indicate Presenter
There is little consensus on what it means to lack access to healthy food—whether that means it is far away and hard to get to without a vehicle or whether supermarkets and sources of healthy food should be more prevalent to make healthy choices easier. The focus on neighborhoods instead of individuals may result in overlooking the barriers some individuals face in accessing healthy food, while overestimating the problem in some neighborhoods, and, indirectly leading to a narrower set of policy options—ones that focus only on neighborhoods, not individuals. Further, there is a tension between the need for definitions and data that can be applied in a standard way across the nation and the need to detect variation in local conditions with local data. Each of the national level measures has different purposes, some of which may be appropriate for policy, while others are not. Each also faces important definitional, data, and methodological limitations to identifying food desert neighborhoods.
This paper raises several concerns about national-level food desert measures, reviews and critiques currently available measures, and suggests improvements to these methods. While data, methods and analytical tools to measure food access continue to improve, there are still many gaps in measurement that should be addressed to further inform policy decisions. Improving these measures is essential to more efficiently target scarce funds to the people and neighborhoods most critically in need. The paper urges that individual measures of food store access be estimated in addition to area-based measures, because individual measures provide information about need, changes in need over time and valuable information for monitoring and evaluating policies that can be masked or ignored when only area-based measures are used. The paper also argues that because of the conceptual and methodological problems in measuring food access limitations, it is important to estimate a broad set of measures that examine multiple facets of food access.