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NC State Extension

Food Access


Diagram of the Socioecological Model, ranging from individual factors (knowledge, attitudes, skills) to Interpersonal (family, friends, social networks) to Organizational (organizations, businesses, institutions) to the Community (county, munincipality, coalitions, networks) to the Soceity (The State of North Carolina).

Socio-ecological Model from the North Carolina Blueprint For Changing Policies And Environments In Support Of Healthy Eating

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.

    A map from the USDA's Food Environment Atlas showing access and proximity to grocery stores in North Carolina counties.

    A map from the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas showing access and proximity to grocery stores in North Carolina counties.

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 (follow the links below for additional resources on each topic):


  • 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.

  • Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap. Feeding America is the nation’s largest network of food banks. Based on USDA data and their own internal research, Feeding America has developed an interactive map and a report about food insecurity.

Primary Contact:
Dara Bloom
Assistant Professor and Local Foods Extension Specialist
Dept. of Youth, Family, and Community Sciences
NC State University

Written By

Dara Bloom, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionDara BloomExtension Local Foods Specialist & Assistant Professor (919) 515-8475 dara_bloom@ncsu.eduAgricultural & Human Sciences
NC State Extension, NC State University
Page Last Updated: 2 years ago
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