Prepared by the Texas Research-to-Policy Collaboration Project 1
Updated January 11th, 2021
Eating a healthy diet can be a challenge for people with limited income and/or limited physical access to supermarkets, grocery stores, and other sources of healthy and affordable food. This data brief describes and compares the number of individuals at risk of low food access in Texas, Texas House Districts (HDs), and Texas Senate Districts (SDs).
This report relies on statistics provided by the Food Access Research Atlas, a project by the Economic Research Services of the United States Department of Agriculture2. The Atlas can provide local data and evidence to communities to help identify opportunities to improve access to healthy foods to promote better health and well-being. Areas with low income and low access to healthy foods identified by the Atlas are traditionally referred to as "food deserts."
- Approximately 2,403,438 (9%) individuals in Texas have both low income and low access to healthy food sources, as of 2015.
- In Texas SDs, this proportion ranges from 3% to 23.3%.
- In Texas HDs, this proportion ranges from 0.2% to 34.6%.
- The Food Access Research Atlas data is available for specific census tracts (neighborhoods) and can now be viewed by Texas Senate and House districts. This granular data can be used to identify specific neighborhoods that may benefit from interventions to improve access to healthy foods.
- Various interventions and programs have extensive scientific evidence suggesting they are likely to improve access to healthy foods. Included below are a summary of a few evidence-based interventions. (Jump To Section)
- Areas with low-income populations and low access to healthy foods alone cannot fully explain poor health outcomes related to diet and nutrition, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.
- Poor health outcomes will likely be most impacted by a suite of interventions addressing food insecurity and additional determinants of health, including health behaviors, access to healthcare, social and economic well-being, the safety and accessibility of local communities.
Food Insecurity By Legislative District
Scientifically-Supported Interventions to Improve Access to Healthy Foods
We have briefly summarized below a series of interventions that have scientific evidence showing they can contribute to increased access to healthy food and lower food insecurity. There are numerous additional interventions that may reduce food insecurity based on more limited evidence and expert opinion. Please reach out at TXRPCNetwork@uth.tmc.edu for more information.
These summaries are largely informed by the detailed research conducted by the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps (CHRR) Program at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute3.
Competitive pricing for healthy foods
There is significant evidence that price discounts or subsidies for healthier foods can increase healthy food consumption and increase sales of healthy foods. These programs have been successfully implemented in numerous schools and designed for workplace wellness at the state level in Michigan4 and North Dakota5. See the CHRR summary.
Fruit & vegetable incentive programs
Fruit and vegetable incentive programs typically offer money for the purchase of fruits and vegetables in proportion to the beneficiary’s expenditures up to a daily benefit limit. Many programs coordinate with existing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) and are targeted for individuals with low income. There is significant evidence that these incentives “increase affordability, access, purchase, and consumption” of fruits and vegetables. See the CHRR summary.
Breakfast After the Bell models in school breakfast programs
The School Breakfast Program is a federal program that reimburses states to “operate nonprofit breakfast programs in schools and residential childcare institutions”6.These programs decrease food insecurity for children and are associated with improved academic achievement. Many school breakfast programs, however, operate too early for many students to participate. To increase student participation in these programs, models like the Breakfast After the Bell7 have been proposed to provide children with breakfast in their first class of the day or during passing periods. See the CHRR summary.
Methodology and Data Notes
There are many ways to measure access to healthy foods for individuals and for neighborhoods. Essential in these analyses is capturing two factors: 1) the income and other personal resources available to individuals in an area and 2) the accessibility to sources of healthy food, like supermarkets, grocery stores, or farmers markets.
The Food Access Research Atlas estimates these two factors at a census-tract (neighborhood) level , enabling an impressive specificity in assessing the access to healthy foods for small areas.8 The latest data available at the neighborhood level by the Food Access Research Atlas is from 2015.
In this analysis, the count of individuals in a neighborhood considered low-income is defined as the population living with income at or below the Federal poverty thresholds by family.
A neighborhood’s access to healthy foods was determined using a 2015 directory of supermarkets collected by a private company and analyzed by the ERS.
A neighborhood is considered low access based on average distance to the nearest source of healthy food (supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store). The average distance required for a neighborhood to be considered low access differs between urban and rural neighborhoods. For this analysis, we use the 1-mile metric for urban neighborhoods and 10-mile metric for rural neighborhoods. The Atlas provides additional variations on these distances as well, including measures related to vehicle availability and group quarters living. These factors are not accounted for in this analysis.
There has recently been an effort to better understand the ratio of high-calorie fast food and “junk food” establishments in an area to the healthy food sources. Areas with a high ratio may be considered “food swamps”, and have been shown to have a stronger correlation with obesity rates than food deserts9. The data for these analyses are available from commercial sources and are not publicly available.
The Texas Research-to-Policy Collaboration (RPC) project is conducted by the Michael & Susan Dell for Healthy Living at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin. The Texas RPC aims to assist legislators by providing access to Texas research, data, and resources. Questions or inquiries should be directed to: TXRPCNetwork@uth.tmc.edu.
The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, 2020. www.countyhealthrankings.org??