Identifying rural food deserts: Methodological considerations for food environment interventions

Alexandre Lebel, David Noreau, Lucie Tremblay, Céline Oberlé, Maurie Girard-Gadreau, Mathieu Duguay, Jason P. Block


OBJECTIVES: Food insecurity in an important public health issue and affects 13% of Canadian households. It is associated with poor accessibility to fresh, diverse and affordable food products. However, measurement of the food environment is challenging in rural settings since the proximity of food supply sources is unevenly distributed. The objective of this study was to develop a methodology to identify food deserts in rural environments.

METHODS: In-store evaluations of 25 food products were performed for all food stores located in four contiguous rural counties in Quebec. The quality of food products was estimated using four indices: freshness, affordability, diversity and the relative availability. Road network distance between all residences to the closest food store with a favourable score on the four dimensions was mapped to identify residential clusters located in deprived communities without reasonable access to a “good” food source. The result was compared with the food desert parameters proposed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as with the perceptions of a group of regional stakeholders.

RESULTS: When food quality was considered, food deserts appeared more prevalent than when only the USDA definition was used. Objective measurements of the food environment matched stakeholders’ perceptions.

CONCLUSION: Food stores’ characteristics are different in rural areas and require an in-store estimation to identify potential rural food deserts. The objective measurements of the food environment combined with the field knowledge of stakeholders may help to shape stronger arguments to gain the support of decision-makers to develop relevant interventions.


Social environment; geography; food supply; food insecurity

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