Mapping a Way to Food Justice With a New Generation of Cartographers

The same technology you use to find a nearby coffee place is helping people access social services.

(Photo: Gerard Puigmal/Getty Images)

Oct 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

University of Kentucky student Laura Greenfield began the spring semester of her junior year as just another kid in professor Matthew Zook’s Geography 409 class, but she ended the year as an activist hero.

She helped show that geographic information systems and interactive online maps—tools we rely on when we’re looking for, say, the best coffee joint in town—are also powerful tools in the fight for social justice and food security.

“I have this ingrained belief that GIS [geographic information systems] and geospatial technology are such powerful tools that can be really helpful to community and grassroots organizations,” she said.

Working with Lexington’s Step by Step, a mentoring service for mothers 14 to 24, Greenfield created an interactive online map that displays available local services. Food, shelter, counseling, and child care services are color-coded, and a user can filter by resource. Anyone with an Internet connection can access the map, but it has allowed Step by Step staff to more efficiently assist women with services they need that are closest to them—essential when callers are relying on public transportation or going on foot.

“Probably 40 percent of my clients come to me in crisis—they’re hungry, they don’t have bottles or diapers, or they need mental health services,” Tanya Torp, Step by Step’s program director, told the Lexington-Herald Leader. “This tool has been fantastic for me to say, ‘Here, I’ve found one of our partners near where you live.’ ”

Cartographers call this kind of social-minded mapping public participatory GIS or community GIS, explained Zook. “It’s not just limited to mapping, but it’s also actually going out and trying to work with communities or marginalized groups and use the skills that folks have to try and make the world a better place,” he said. “Not every geography program does this, but it’s certainly a big part of ours.”

So much so that last spring the department created the University of Kentucky Mapshop, a pipeline for community organizations to work directly with students, faculty, and cartographic staff to produce the maps they need. The Mapshop grew out of a community-based classroom project associate professor Matthew W. Wilson has run since 2010.

GIS technology isn’t new—it’s been around for about 20 years. What’s different now is easy access to the necessary tech and individual agency. Maps became highly visible in the late 1990s when they went online (remember Mapquest?). Open-source digital platforms and more user-friendly iterations led to their wider dissemination and made them simple enough to master that a sophisticated map could be the product of a semester’s work.

“It’s an amazing tool,” said Michael Hollister of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C. “But anybody with a dedicated person and time can create their own.” In September, the agency released its hunger heat map, which overlaid areas of food insecurity with a second map based on pounds of food delivered by the food bank and its 500 partners. When the two sets of data were aggregated, hot spots on the map rearranged, and a new landscape took form. Virginia’s Fairfax County, frequently ranked near the top on lists of America’s wealthiest counties, changed color—there were hungry people there too.

Philadelphia’s Food Trust used a similar approach when it released a report that mapped food access: It showed that the city’s lower-income communities also had the lowest supermarket access and the highest rates of diet-related deaths. That local mapping project led to Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which created 5,000 jobs and made healthy food more available to an estimated 400,000 of the state’s underserved residents. It also won praise from First Lady Michelle Obama. In Africa, where climate change is hitting women in agriculture hardest, researchers have used geospatial gender data to target the inequities women smallholder farmers experience in agriculture.

“The culture of nonprofits has evolved to doing more around data,” said Jody Tick of the Capital Area Food Bank. “People want to know they’re making a difference and be able to have tools that show that. It’s not solely a hunger resource. It’s a mapping resource.” As such, maps’ ability to tell a story visually—and instantly—can improve quality of life for people in need and potentially change policy.

“Maps never reflect reality. They in many ways produce reality,” Zook said. “You turn the world into a story. The skill of cartography comes from how good of a storyteller mapmaker you are.” In that sense, Greenfield’s map shows what one with social justice on its legend can accomplish.

“This is a really good example of how a map makes the world it’s hoping to produce,” Zook said. “It’s powerful in its functionality, but there’s an immediate message you see when you look at it: ‘Wow, there’s a lot of resources out there. I can get help.’ I think particularly for the mothers who are using that, that’s a big visual impact right from the start.”