Can you have a food desert in a rural area?

A number of commentators on this new map of food deserts in the United States suggest the reason there are rural food deserts out West is because few people live in these areas. Here is a sample of the comments (from three different people):

surprise surprise……grocery stores don’t exist where people don’t live. It doesn’t take a statistician to figure that out. (Only to spend the time to show people that in a brightly-colored graph.)

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Commenters here have it correct. This graph is an absolute waste of time given that there SHOULDN’T be fresh food available where there are no people to eat it. “You can see the number of grocery stores multiply as you start in Nevada and enter into California’s urban areas.” Duh.

Crisis creation. Move along folks. Nothing to see here but smoke and mirrors.

The creator of the map explains how he measured food deserts in more rural areas:

Using the Google Places API, Yau search for the nearest grocery store every 20 miles (this included smaller stores–not just the major chains he plotted in his last visualization). “I chose those increments, because there’s some rough agreement that a food desert is a place where there isn’t a grocery store within 10 miles,” he explains, adding that in pedestrian cities the standard is closer to a mile. “And if you consider searches every 20 with a 10-mile radius you’ve got a fairly comprehensive view.”

There are two issues at work. One is how exactly to define a food desert. One mile might make sense in a city but is 10 miles a good measure in a more rural area? The second issue is behind the scenes and concerns more than just grocery stores in rural areas: how exactly should services and businesses be distributed in rural areas? How many health care facilities should there be? What about social services? Businesses and organizations could make a case that it is difficult to make money or cover their costs in such a rural environment.

One way around this would be to distinguish between urban food deserts and rural food deserts.

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