Measuring Food Access – Local Information, Statewide Application

Six Michigan communities – three urban and three rural – are sharing a tool for getting key information to improve food access locally.

Picture a community in the US where people have limited access to healthy food. Very likely, you’ll imagine an urban neighborhood. This is only part of the picture. Access to healthy food is an issue in urban and rural settings alike. Six Michigan communities – three urban and three rural – are sharing a tool for getting key information to improve food access locally.

The Michigan Good Food Charter casts a very specific vision for food access: a food system in which all Michiganders have access to food that is healthy, environmentally responsible, fairly produced, and affordable. Since 2010, communities across Michigan have been working toward making this vision reality. In one of the latest steps toward progress, six communities have used a set of shared survey questions to learn about what is working and where more attention is needed.

Organizations in three urban settings–Ypsilanti, Battle Creek, and Pontiac–used the Shared Measurement Healthy Food Access Survey to better understand food access in their communities. What is special about this survey is that each community used the same core questions plus a few questions tailored to their interests.

The core questions, developed by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems and a group of advisory partners, asked about things like: where people buy food, how far people travel to buy food, and whether there is fresh produce available at that location. Using the same core questions is an exciting step because it means that results can be compared between different communities who use the survey.

In addition to the shared core questions, some communities added custom questions of interest to them. For example, the Ypsilanti Healthy Food Access Survey included questions about how many people use food pantries and reasons for not using pantries. Community-specific questions are important to include because they can help get information that may be key in one place but not another.

The Ypsilanti Healthy Food Access Survey focused on learning about food insecurity among low-income households in Ypsilanti. Fifty-nine percent of people who took the survey were food insecure, well above the estimated 14% of households in Washtenaw County that are food insecure. Among the findings, forty percent of people who responded to the survey said that they do not have access to fruits and vegetables in their neighborhood. The survey was conducted by Food Gatherers. Their report is available online.

Good Food Battle Creek led the Healthy Food Access Survey in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Battle Creek. Their report highlights the lack of food retail options in the neighborhood and reveals opportunities to increase healthy food options at dollar stores, improve the bus system, and build on urban agriculture assets in the community. The Battle Creek report is also available online.

The results of the Pontiac survey, which was led by Oakland University, have not yet been published. 

This spring, three rural counties are using the Healthy Food Access Survey with their own customizations. These counties are Antrim, Benzie, and Oscoda Counties. The Antrim and Benzie surveys, coordinated by the Food and Farming Network of Northwestern Michigan, are emphasizing interest in and access to locally-grown foods. In Oscoda County, District Health Department No. 2 is leading the survey and including a custom focus on difficult tradeoffs people have to make between buying food and covering other expenses.  Their reports are expected in late 2018. 

Behind the scenes helping to make the Healthy Food Access Surveys possible is the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems (CRFS) and its Shared Measurement initiative. The initiative has provided financial and technical support for all six survey locations. It is led by CRFS Specialist Kathryn Colasanti with guidance from an advisory committee, technical support from the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, and funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Shared measurement helps communities equip themselves with the knowledge and skills to find out for themselves how well their efforts are working. The goal is to help local leaders inform and improve Michigan Good Food efforts, catalyze government support, leverage funding, democratize the power of information and strengthen statewide partnerships and networks. Shared measurement does this by providing tools and trainings that communities use to collect, use and share key information about healthy food access and local food access.

The Healthy Food Access Survey is just one piece of the shared measurement strategy. Shared measurement is also helping to:

  • track institutional sourcing of food grown or produced in Michigan,
  • document impacts of farmers markets through the Michigan Farmers Market Association’s Farmers Market Metrics Portal,
  • provide tools and trainings like a primer and webinar on assessing economic impact of local food systems,
  • and explore data on racial equity in the food system.

 To learn more about Michigan Good Food Shared Measurement, ranging from tracking local food purchased and served by institutions to tools for exploring economic impact of local food, visit the Good Food Charter Shared Measurement webpage.

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