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Program Post: Getting “Local” on the Map with GIS

Farm Landscape

Each Thursday, ASAP’s programs take you behind the scenes of their work. This week, our Local Food Research Center team talks tech! Specifically, they explore if GIS technology is a good fit for agricultural systems work.

From ASAP’s Local Food Research Center

Today, planning and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) go hand in hand. Planners use maps to understand the spatial relationships of their communities so they can determine the best way to design and plan spaces. Similarly, agricultural systems work and GIS mapping function together to help farms and agricultural specialists visualize environments and better predict crop yields, soil compositions, and water flow. It seems obvious then that local food systems planning, which encompasses both community development planning and agricultural systems, would be a perfect fit for GIS technology. Right?

It’s true that maps can help local food systems researchers understand where food system resources exist in a community. A map can show the density of farms and farmland, the locations of farmers markets, concentrations of low-income communities, and agricultural zoning boundaries. This type of information is critical to food systems researchers as they try to understand a community’s needs. As a visual, maps offer easy-to-understand information about WHERE things are in a community, but what maps can’t tell us is WHY things are the way they are. Too often in food systems research there’s the tendency to mix proximity with causality, or to base a “why” on a “where.” For instance, research shows a positive relationship between low-income individuals living in rural communities with a limited number of grocery stores and increased rates of diet-related illness such as obesity and diabetes. From this data, it’s tempting to conclude that people living in rural areas are suffering from obesity and diabetes (WHERE) because they have limited access to healthy food options (WHY). But…

While limited access to healthy foods is certainly an important force behind diet-related illness, there are many other factors contributing to the growing obesity and diabetes problems, including cultural norms, loss of cooking skills, genetic predisposition, and lack of physical activity. When it comes to ASAP’s work localizing our food system and making decisions about changing the food environment, we know we must always be mindful of our data and the extent to which we use it to justify a plan of action. Lasting change in our food system will be achieved by using a deliberate approach informed by quality research and informed decision making.