The Great American (Food) Desert? A Spatiotemporal Analysis of Food Access in the Great Plains

Authors: Robert Shepard*, University Of Nebraska - Lincoln, Morgan Ryan, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Topics: Rural Geography, Food Systems, Health and Medical
Keywords: food deserts, rural geographies, Great Plains
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 18
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The Great Plains region of the United States is sparsely populated and facing population decline, presenting unique challenges for consistent and reliable consumer access to healthy food. Conventional definitions of food deserts, drawing from spatial accessibility as well as income data collected at the census tract level, do manage to successfully identify numerous “food deserts” across the Great Plains, but not without major flaws. First, many small-town grocers have limited operating hours, which severely restricts accessibility. Researchers have demonstrated the importance of time as a component of accessibility and food choice (Widener and Shannon 2014; Liu et al 2020). Additionally, census tracts in the region tend to be very large (one census tract in Cherry County, Nebraska, for example, is approximately the size of the State of Connecticut’s land area). This means that local context of food accessibility may be missing from calculations, particularly for most rural residents in the region. This study evaluates the spatiotemporal landscape of fresh food access in the Great Plains, giving particular attention to rural areas. Our preliminary findings suggest that conventional “food desert” definitions underestimate accessibility problems in the region.

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