Food Systems and Planning

A view of the Urbana Farmers Market from July 2017

In honor of the farmers markets in both Urbana and Champaign opening soon – on Saturday, May 5, and Tuesday, May 15, respectively – this month on the blog we’ll be talking about food systems and planning.

So why is food a planning issue in the first place? We’ve talked on the blog before about the connection between planning and public health, and food is a factor. What food individuals can access and afford plays a large role in what food they eat. Convenience – not just access, but ease of access – has an effect too. That means that the location of grocery stores and other places to buy food, as well as their stock and their prices, are important to health outcomes.

Planning is all about the relationship between people and place, and trying to ensure that that relationship is positive, productive, and equitable. The presence or absence of food outlets in a given area can impact the health of the area’s residents: place, and people.

Let’s take a look at how planners define and assess problems in food systems.

What is a food desert? What is a food swamp?

Areas where access to a grocery store or other retailer of healthy, affordable food is limited are called food deserts[1], but specific definitions can vary. We’ll refer to the definitions proposed in the Food Access Research Atlas, a data product from the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. This tool maps food access based on proximity to grocery stores, and allows users to take into account other components like income, vehicle access, and demographic and housing characteristics.

The term “food swamp” is used to describe areas where unhealthy food options are very prevalent[2]. It often carries the connotation that the local unhealthy food options are more accessible or convenient and less expensive than local healthy food options, which may be few and far between – meaning that it is possible, or even inherent in some definitions of the term, for a given area to be both a food desert and a food swamp.

How are these defined/assessed?

How best to quantitatively measure food deserts and food swamps can vary from place to place. One of the key distinctions is whether the area of interest is urban or rural. In urban areas, food deserts have no healthy food retail options within one mile, while rural food deserts have no healthy food retail options within 10 miles[3]. The Food Access Research Atlas allows users to set and adjust these parameters further: to a half-mile in urban areas and 20 miles in rural areas[4].

Food swamps are more difficult to quantify, in part because they’re more context-dependent. Also, food swamps are defined based on prevalence rather than absence, which automatically complicates their measurement. Researchers, planners, and public health officials are left with the question of how many is too many, and how to arrive at that answer. Should it be unhealthy food options per square mile? Per capita? Per healthy food option? And what about restaurants or other retailers that offer both healthy and unhealthy food options, like convenience stores that sell both fresh fruit and potato chips? Does that make it necessary to parse customer choice, to determine how many people are choosing what food, and assess case-by-case whether a given retailer or restaurant is healthy or unhealthy? Different studies use different measures – which is by no means a bad thing. It only means that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the methodology behind any study or article you’re reading.

Defining food swamps can also come with a greater component of value judgment: in conversations about food deserts, the phrase “healthy food options” usually refers to full-service grocery stores offering a range of produce, dairy, meats, and other fresh food, although different variations of this definition exist and are in used in different studies. But “unhealthy food” can be a nebulous and in some cases highly disputed and judgment-laden concept. You’re reading this post right now, so you’ve been on the Internet – you know that. Like the range of possible methodologies we talked about above, even the definition of “unhealthy” can introduce more discussion into the quantification of food swamps.

There are many studies and maps of food swamps out there, so the planning and public health fields aren’t operating with a lack of research on the topic. Methods and measures exist, but they and the conversations around them can be somewhat more complicated than the more straightforward distance-based definitions of a food desert.

Where are the food deserts in Champaign County?

The location of food deserts in Champaign County depends, of course, on the parameters used. Using the Food Access Research Atlas on its base parameters of urban one-mile/rural 10-mile distance, these areas include census tracts that cover some of northeast Urbana bounded by I-74, Illinois 150/Illinois 130, and North Broadway Avenue; a large area that extends from the University of Illinois’s southern campus areas to Old Church Road; and areas immediately north and south of Rantoul.

The food desert areas remain the same when the rural distance is increased from 10 miles to 20 miles. However, when the urban distance is adjusted to half a mile, the food desert area in Champaign-Urbana expands significantly to cover the areas described above, as well as other areas including but not limited to large portions of west Urbana and north Champaign and most of Rantoul.

How can there be positive changes to food access and security other than recruiting and siting more grocery stores in more locations?

The obvious solution to shrinking food deserts is to recruit more grocery stores in areas where one isn’t already operating, but there are strategies beyond business recruitment, too.

Mobile fresh food vendors can provide access to healthy food options to residents of areas far from a grocery store who may not have access to a vehicle. Improving transit access from food desert areas to grocery stores, via routing and expansion of frequency and operating hours, can make trips to the grocery store easier and more convenient, even if the store is not physically closer. Both the Champaign and Urbana farmers markets accept and double SNAP benefits on produce and other items, increasing access to fresh food for low-income households. Encouraging food retailers to expand their menus and stock to include healthy options has been the basis of other programs. Another component is public education. Accessible information on food and nutrition, such as recipes for meals with short preparation times, and tips on how to gauge produce ripeness and the best ways to store different fruits and vegetables to maintain freshness for longer periods of time, can help save time and reduce food waste when working with fresh ingredients.

Food systems planning is a growing subfield, and while food access and food security have serious impacts on the health and financial well-being of individuals and households, there is a growing body of research and practice to find methods, programs, and best practices to improve the healthy food landscape.

[1] USDA Economic Research Service. “Access to Affordable, Nutritious Food Is Limited in ‘Food Deserts.’ “ March 1, 2010. <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food Access Research Atlas,

[4] Ibid.

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