Some 48 million Americans who experience food insecurity worry daily about where they will get their next meal. Across the country, in both rural and urban areas, people lack the ability to acquire enough food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle. Although many underlying factors contribute to the nation’s food security issues, the location of one’s home in relation to grocery stores and other food outlets that provide healthy, culturally appropriate and affordable sustenance is key. Simply put, just getting to our food can be a large barrier.

Consider that about 24.5 million people in the U.S., including many families in Ada and Canyon counties, live in food deserts, according to several U.S. Department of Agriculture measures. These areas lack grocery stores and other food outlets offering fresh, healthy, affordable food, and the lack of access is often compounded by poverty and poor transportation infrastructure. Food deserts also tend to have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores offering unhealthy, processed food at low prices. About half of the people living in food deserts are also low income, compounding their food access issues.


The USDA has identified likely food deserts in Ada County as part of its national food-mapping project. However, while the USDA mapping tool may let you know you’re in a food desert, it doesn’t provide granular information about what types of food are available in your neighborhood nor where they are located. The USDA’s Food Access Atlas project provides food access information at the census block level. The agency’s Food Environment Atlas provides a broader array of information about food choices, health, and well-being, but at the county level. The maps we created, with a geographic information system (GIS), measure travel distances from residences to food locations, broken down by type of food offering (groceries, convenience, fast food, etc.), which we use as a proxy for healthy and unhealthy (see methodology section below).

We also took residential density into consideration to account for where people are actually living, rather than using aggregated household data, such as Census tracts, or the 0.5 km grid estimates that the USDA methodology employed. The data we used, often publicly available at the county level, as well as for neighborhoods, can help city planners, community members, non-profit organizations and others working to increase a community’s food security.


In Ada County, the average distance to any food location is 0.9 miles (4,650 feet). The table below shows the distance by type and how many residences are within 0.5 mile (i.e. for walking) and between 1 and 3 miles (for biking). There are more residences in Ada County within walking distance to a fast food restaurant (n=31,381) than to a grocery or supermarket (n=21,414).

More TBR 6
1. Som Castellano’s intro to TBR 6
2. Constance on economic concentration in ag
3. Deemer on social class and animal welfare
4. Saxton on farmworker injustice and health
5. Meiretto on immigration policy and food security
6. Wuerzer, Fry & Anderson on food access in Ada County
7.  Bruce on producing food for alternative food networks
8. Som Castellano on gender inequality in the local food movement

On average, a grocery store is 1.21 miles from a residence, while a supermarket averages 3.7 miles. If one is traveling by car, this may not seem like an unreasonable distance, but what about those without cars? By plotting these measures on a map, we can clearly identify that there are localized issues with travel distance to food outlets. These areas can be considered food deserts.

Type Residences within ½ mile Residences within 1 mile Residences within 3 mile Average distance (Ada Co., miles)
Limited Restaurant 31,381 (23.5%) 80,466 (60.3%) 127,022 (95.2%) 1.14
Restaurant 28,398 (21.3%) 70,528 (52.9%) 125,037 (93.7%) 1.25
Groceries 20,012 (15%) 64,158 (48.1%) 128,538 (96.3%) 1.21
Gas station/ Convenient store 6,057 (4.5%) 25,347 (19%) 101,756 (76.3%) 2.57
Supermarket 1,402 (1.1%) 7,218 (5.4%) 62,620 (46.9%) 3.7
Closest Distance to any type 43,796 (32.8%) 93,595 (70.1%) 13,0699 (97.9%) 0.88
Total residences in study area: 133,437

Table 1. Distance bands to food outlets in Ada County, Idaho by type of outlet.

Maps 1 and 2 below show the current state of relative food access in Ada County with emphasis on fast food and gas stations (Map 1), and grocery stores and supermarkets (Map 2). It is obvious that food retail locations generally follow the larger street and transportation network. (Click maps for larger views).

<strong>Map 1</strong>: Proximity of closest fast food or gas station to residential areas.

Map 1: Proximity of closest fast food or gas station to residential areas.

However, Map 2 shows that some areas (in orange and red) are more isolated from a grocery store or supermarket. Not all of these isolated areas are impacted equally. Some, like portions of Harris Ranch and the North End and Hidden Springs differ socio-economically, and likely have fewer food access concerns than in poorer areas of the valley.

<strong>Map 2</strong>: Proximity of closest groceries or supermarkets

Map 2: Proximity of closest groceries or supermarkets


The Vista Neighborhood, in South Boise, can be viewed as one of the most critical food deserts in the valley by several measures, along with Garden City and the Nampa-Caldwell corridor. Highlighted by both the USDA food desert analysis and the present study, Vista Neighborhood is made up of a medium-dense residential core surrounded by difficult to access arterials. Vista residents are less likely to have cars and have an overall lower socioeconomic status than other parts of the city.

Vista is also the current beneficiary of a focus on social and economic development through the city’s new Energize Our Neighborhoods initiative. This program has a mission to work with residents to energize and enhance the livability in neighborhoods throughout the city. Relative to the rest of the city, Vista has lower household incomes, higher renter occupancy rates, older housing stock, lower home values and a far greater percentage of students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.

The neighborhood, located near the airport and along a major corridor into downtown Boise, also has a number of assets and opportunities, making it an interesting focus of the city’s efforts. As indicated by maps 3 and 4 below, specific portions of the Vista Neighborhood have food access issues. Five food outlets offering fresh, healthy food options (grocery stores and supermarkets) serve the neighborhood. However, these outlets are all located near one another along the neighborhood’s northern perimeter, as Map 3 clearly shows.

Vista Neighborhood fast food map

Map 3: Vista Neighborhood – Proximity to fast food and gas stations

Portions of the neighborhood are also cut off from surrounding neighborhoods, bound by I-84 and the New York Canal on the south and by Federal Way on the east side. This geographic fact limits accessible food options, in particular via walking or biking. For instance, only about a third of Vista residences are within 0.5 miles and slightly more than half within 1 mile of the neighborhood’s healthy food stores.

Recently, the Energize Our Neighborhoods initiative has begun to address the health related community service needs of the area. As part of this effort, the Idaho chapter of the American Planning Association recently received a $125,000 grant to focus on increasing access to nutritious foods and physical activity in the Vista Neighborhood. The grant includes a research phase and will develop an action plan “aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles through healthy eating.”

Vista Neighborhood groceries

Map 4: Vista Neighborhood – Proximity to groceries and supermarkets


People seeking to fill their grocery cart for the month or for a week or day of meals are challenged by their neighborhood’s food options and food prices. Without proximate healthy food at affordable prices, people often turn to other options. Low accessibility to healthy food correlates with higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related issues. For many of these reasons, food access is an important public policy issue. Our visualizations indicate potential areas of focus for local governments, non-profits and businesses seeking to improve the community’s well being. For instance, local governments can reconsider land use regulations and infrastructure enabling better access for pedestrians and bicyclists or enable more farm stands, mobile food vendors, community gardens and other policy innovations which may improve food access.

SELECTED REFERENCESCubbin, C., Pedregon, V., Egerter, S. & Braveman, P. (2008). Neighborhoods and Health. Center on Social Disparities in Health. University of California, San Francisco.

Lewis, D. (2015). Neighborhood environments and risk for type 2 diabetes. Journal of American Medical Association Internal Medicine.

Larson, N., Story, M., and Nelson, M. (2009). Neighborhood environments: Disparities in access to healthy foods in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 36(1): 74-82.

This study helped us identify areas within Ada County that are potentially underserved when it comes to accessing fresh, healthy food options. It also suggests potential areas of focus for planners and developers looking for opportunities to locate food outlets.

This study does contain some limitations. For example, we used food outlets that have been formally registered (identified by NAICS code) and therefore did not look at mobile food markets or food trucks. In addition, we did not consider other food outlets such as community gardens, informal food sources or recipients of the various food assistance programs.

Next time you find yourself grocery shopping, consider the total costs involved, from transportation costs, to the amount of time invested in procuring food for yourself or your family to the very social and environmental costs of the food produced. The maps we produced here attempt to show some of those costs in terms of the spatial layout of the county, one factor of many that policymakers should consider as they seek to improve the quality of life in Boise neighborhoods.


We used the North American Industry Classification System (2012) to help categorize and locate the various types of food outlets in Ada County, including healthy food, which is available at grocery stores and supermarkets, specialty markets such as meat markets, fruit markets, etc., and unhealthy food from fast food restaurants (NAICS “Limited Restaurants”), as well as gas stations and convenience stores. Full-service restaurants (where people are seated to eat) were also considered, but due to their higher food costs were not used as a primary source of meals.

In addition to NAICS data, we mapped Ada County food outlets and verified addresses with data from the metropolitan planning organization COMPASS. Next, we determined the distances to the closest retail food outlet and to the closest source of healthy food for each residence. The distance was calculated using network analysis along city streets so we could take into consideration the actual route one would take to food outlets. We computed for each residence (n=133,437) the distance to each type of food outlet and determined the closest type of food outlet.

This calculation differs from most food access measures, which measure distances as the crow flies. Wuerzer has used similar GIS techniques including retail gravitational models to suggest bike share locations in International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, treating distance as a dependent variable in Applied Geography and looking at a larger sample of college cyclists in Journal of American College Health. Other studies have used transportation networks to measure real-world distance; for example, Zenk, et al used Manhattan block equivalents to measure travel distance in Detroit and Jiao, et al, used different modes of transportation to measure time to food outlet. Our methodology enabled us to take barriers such as rivers or busy streets into consideration, forcing alternate routes and altering the distance measures. In addition, crosswalks, bike paths and sidewalks were considered in the model as some residents may rely on walking or biking for their mode of transportation.

In order to visualize this analysis, we used a spatial statistic tool called kernel density, which calculates density measures – average distances to food outlets within a defined search radius (0.5 mi.), where food access for near neighbors is more heavily weighted in the average – and then applies a smoothing function to the measures. The resulting heat map shows where residences are farther away and where they are closer to food outlets, relative to their neighbors.

For inquiries on the Vista Neighborhood and work of the Public Policy Research Center, please contact

For general and GIS methodology correspondence:

Share:Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on TumblrBuffer this pageEmail this to someonePrint this page

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.