Learn More About Food Environment Index

The Food Environment Index helps us measure the availability of economical, close, and nutritious food options in a community.

What do you need to know about this measure?

The Food Environment Index measures the quality of the food environment in a county on a scale from 0 to 10.

The Food Environment Index is comprised of two variables:

  1. Limited access to healthy foods from the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas estimates the percentage of the population who are low income and do not live close to a grocery store. Living close to a grocery store is defined differently in rural and nonrural areas: in rural areas, it means living less than 10 miles from a grocery store whereas in nonrural areas, it means less than 1 mile. Low income is defined as having an annual family income of less than or equal to 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold for the family size.
  2. Food insecurity from Feeding America estimates the percentage of the population who did not have access to a reliable source of food during the past year.

The two variables are scaled from 0 to 10 (zero being the worst value in the nation, and 10 being the best) and averaged to produce the Food Environment Index. In 2016, the average value for counties was 7.0 and most counties fell between about 5.4 and 8.3.

Can this measure be used to track progress?

The Food Environment Index is a particularly poor measure to use for tracking progress. Each year the values are scaled from 0 to 10, meaning that if there is improvement around the nation, individual county improvement can be masked. However, there are a number of other measures, including the individual measures that make up the index, which would be better for tracking progress. Both of those measures can be found among the Additional Measures on our website.

What additional resources are available to explore this measure more deeply?

The USDA produces two excellent resources for communities looking to explore their food environment, the Food Access Research Atlas, and the Food Environment Atlas. Both of these resources are regularly updated and can provide you with information on where there are healthy food options, and where people live with few easy options for finding healthy foods.

In addition, Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap program creates the annual estimates of food insecurity used in the Food Environment Index. They also provide a measure of child food insecurity.