Citizen Cartographers Map Out Brooklyn's Food Deserts

Mar 2, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Walk the streets of the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, and you may see volunteers for Brooklyn Food Coalition armed with clipboards and pens. These volunteers are taking part in an increasingly popular form of activism: citizen mapping.

By surveying the grocers and convenience stores of Crown Heights and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the volunteers are piecing together a visual representation of food availability in New York's most populous burrough. Going store to store, the fledgling cartographers note every food vendor and its wares on a checklist. Does the location sell meat? Check yes or no. Dairy? Fruit? Fair trade coffee?

The information is entered onto an online map, allowing locals to locate healthy food options in areas typically considered "food deserts." Each dot on the map represents a food seller. Clicking on a dot pops up a menu that details food items available at that location (see map below for an example).

If you&39;re hungry in Brooklyn, don&39;t leave home without consulting the Food Census food map. (Image from

Jeffrey Heehs, who is leading the mapping project, hopes the map will help policymakers assess food availability to understand health and nutrition issues that plague residents. Many of the neighboorhood stores sell no fresh produce; pre-packaged food monopolizes grocery shelves.

"Food deserts are linked with lower local health outcomes, and they may be a driving force in the health disparities among lower-income and affluent people in the U.S.," reports Scientific American.

In time, the group hopes to gather more data, compare neighborhoods, draft policies to address local concerns, and then lobby New York city officials.

The project isn't perfect (maps don't display costs of food items and are currently not available offline), but it's a start.

"It's still very much a work in progress," Heehs told Scientific American.

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