When we hear about food insecurity in the US, the information we get often comes in the form of statistics. We read about how many people receive SNAP benefits, live in areas without a nearby grocery store, or can’t afford fresh produce. Those statistics are essential for understanding the food system in the US. However, they only tell part of the story.
Refresh Working Group member Jamie Harding and his colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future are working to add a visual dimension to our understanding of the US food system. Using its expertise in mapping and spatial analysis, the Center created the Maryland Food System Map, an interactive resource that lets users explore data that show where food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed in Maryland in context with demographics, environmental indicators, and health outcomes. In doing so, the map tells a rich visual story about Maryland’s food system.
How it works
The map is remarkably user friendly. With a few clicks, anyone with an internet connection can know where to find their nearest SNAP retailer or farmers’ market. The map also allows users to pull up different types of data at once and see them overlaid on the same map. This is a particularly useful feature, in that it allows people to visualize the relationship between, say, the number of grocery stores and the unemployment rate in a given area. With that sort of functionality, the map offers ample opportunities to explore the relationships between economics, food, and geography.
Who’s using it
People use the Maryland Food System Map for various reasons. Students and researchers will often visit the map and then link to the map’s open data portal to download data layers and conduct their own analyses. Food policy councils make maps and extract statistics to use in their proposals and reports. Policy makers use the data to help with planning and strategy development. The Center has created additional tools to help people better understand the data it provides and the impact of that data in human terms. One example is an interactive map that details the work of Maryland’s eight regional food councils. The map adds an additional geographic dimension to our understanding of how different parts of the state are addressing food insecurity. Another example is a story map that focuses on urban farms in Baltimore and the restaurants and markets where the food they grow is sold. Other examples are available on the Projects page of the Maryland Food System Map website.
The future of food security
The food system in the US is vast and complex. The Maryland Food System Map is a powerful illustration of that complexity, given the magnitude of data you might need to evaluate in just one state. However, the map is also an important tool in cutting through that complexity. It’s one thing to say that people are experiencing food insecurity, or that we need to improve certain aspects of our food system. It’s quite another to see exactly where specific issues are arising and why. That level of detail opens the doors to targeted approaches, allowing people to identify the nature and magnitude of different problems in different areas. In that way, tools like this are an essential part of refreshing the US food system.