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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 01/20/2011

USDA's Food Atlas maps out Americans' food environment

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

Do you know how many fast-food restaurants your county had in 2008? Or are you curious to know how many pounds of fruit and vegetables that people in your area eat in a year?

If either of those topics -- or scads of others related to the way Americans eat -- is of interest to you, then carve out an hour to tool around the federal government's highly addictive U.S. Food Environment Atlas Web site.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released yesterday an updated version of its year-old online mapping tool, which compares U.S. counties in terms of their "food environment." That environment, now delineated by 168 (up from 90) searchable criteria, is defined as the set of factors that determine and reflect people's access to affordable, healthy food.

The tool was developed by USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) as part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative to end childhood obesity in a generation.

This is serious stuff, I know. But I find it fascinating. I spent some time looking at stats for Montgomery County, where I was born and raised. Did you know that there were 556 fast-food restaurants there in 2007 and 589 in 2008? Or that, in 2006, 17.2 percent of students were eligible for free school lunches, and, by 2008, 19.2 percent were?

What did folks in MoCo eat at home in 2006? Per capita, they consumed:

  • 230 pounds of fruit and vegetables
  • 122 pounds of packaged "sweetsnacks"
  • 57 gallons of soft drinks
  • 99 pounds of meat and poultry
  • 320 pounds of prepared foods
  • and 16 pounds of "solid fat"

A year later, the adult obesity rate in Montgomery County was 18.8 percent.

Fun facts aside, this is a pretty handy device for people interested in public health and nutrition policy. It's great to have data about people's relative access to healthful food, for instance, and the prevalence of obesity in their community right at your fingertips when you're, say, contemplating building a grocery store or planning a youth-nutrition initiative. It's also terrific that it's so easy for members of the public like you and me to use. Maybe we could all take time to learn more about our own food environments, which would make us better-educated consumers -- and voters.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | January 20, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Health News, Health Policy, Minority health, Nutrition and Fitness, Obesity  
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