Watt Watchers of Texas: Texas is Too Good To Waste™

Activity: Texas's Food Deserts

Grade Level:
, ,

Activity Overview: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food deserts as areas of the country without any fresh fruit, vegetables, or other whole foods. For the past several decades, the middle class migrated to the suburbs from city centers taking their grocery stores with them, leaving only convenience stores. These stores commonly lack an abundance of whole and unprocessed foods, meaning many low-income and urban families lack access to most of the foods that some take for granted.

Time: This page contains a series of activities looking at different kinds of maps. Each activity can be run in succession. Each one takes between 15 minutes and 1 hour.

Activity 1: Compare Regions

In preparation for class, load the Food Access Research Atlas from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This map aggregates information about low income populations and populations with low access to supermarkets featuring a wide variety of whole foods.

The green layer represents low income census districts with supermarket resources more than 1 mile (urban) and 10 miles (rural) away. The orange layer represents low income census districts with supermarket resources more than 1/2 mile (urban) and 10 miles (rural) away. The red layer represents low income census districts with supermarket resources more than 1 mile (urban) and 20 miles (rural) away.

Compare the different regions of the United States based on residents' access to supermarkets. Although census tracts vary significantly in size across the United States, the relative proportion of access is still visible in the different layers of the maps. If one layer does not show a strong correlation, switch to another layer, which may show a different story.

Students should be able to identify that irrespective of differences in tract size, the Desert Southwest has a higher percentage of food deserts than the Northeast. Similarly, the Deep South and Southeast has a higher proportion of food deserts than the Upper Midwest.

Activity 2: Identifying the Regions of Texas

Load a digital maps tool, such as Google Maps or The National Map from USGS. Use a projector to present this map to the entire class in order to investigate. If digital tools are not available, consider checking out maps or a US atlas from the library. If a projector is not available you can separate students into groups to work with printed or atlas-based maps.

Work as a class or in groups to identify the four major regions of Texas:

  1. Mountains and Basins
  2. Great Plains
  3. North Central Plains
  4. Coastal Plains
The four regions of Texas.

The USGS National Map highlights certain topographical features that geographers use to define the regions of Texas. The satellite view from Google Maps contains different clues to the different regions based on what can be seen from space.

Students should be able to identify in which region your school can be found and the physical characteristics of each region. Does it lie close to the boundary between two different regions? If you find yourself near a boundary, what physical characteristics of each region does your locality share?

Activity 3: Mapping Regions onto Texas

Now switch back to the Food Access Research Atlas from the first activity and reset the view of the map to focus on the state of Texas and remove all of the layers to show just the boundaries of the state and the major topographical and transportation features. Ask students to recall the different regions of Texas from the previous exercise. Can students imagine the boundaries of the regions over the layers on this map?

If your projector can be pointed at a whiteboard or SmartBoard, students can work together to sketch the map of the regions of Texas over the food desert map? Students should be able to recreate an approximation of the boundaries of the regions of Texas on this map.

Activity 4: Comparing Food Districts Across Regions

After the boundaries of the Texas regions have been sketched onto the Food Access Research Atlas, turn on one of the layers to reveal the food desert data. Use the map tools to zoom and refocus the map over each of the different regions. Ask students to compare them across a variety of different characteristics.

  • Which region has larger census tracts? If the distinct census tracts are not easily visible, try toggling between the different layers in order to better investigate Texas's census districts. Students should notice that the census tracts of the Coastal Plains and North Central Plains are much smaller than those of the Great Plains and Mountains and Basins.
  • Which region has the highest proportion of Low Vehicle Access tracts? The Low Vehicle Access layer will show these tracts on the map. Census tracts across the state have Low Vehicle Access according to this information. However, more than half of the total area of the Mountains and Basins region has Low Vehicle Access.
  • Which region has the highest proportion of Low Income and Low Access at 1 mile (urban) and 10 miles (rural)? Income and access in the Rio Grande Valley are some of the lowest in the state. As a result, large swaths of the rural coastal plains can be considered food deserts. Combined with urban access issues in and around Houston and Dallas, these tracts push the large and diverse Coastal Plains region into a higher proportion of food deserts.

Activity 5: Sketch Your Map

For the final activity from this set, ask students to create a sketch map showing their home, your school, and their local food resources. Maps do not need to be exact, but should show a general idea of the spatial relationships between those three places. For example, if students pass a supermarket on the way to school, then the supermarket should be between the school and their home on the map. Do students live in a neighborhood with local convenience stores or quick marts? Are there gas stations with snacks across the street from the school or on the nearest highway?

Excellent student work should include the following features in their relative positions:

  • Student's dwelling
  • School
  • Supermarket(s)
  • Convenience store/quick marts
  • Farmers' markets (if applicable)

How do student maps compare and contrast? Do students who live in the same neighborhood highlight the same food resources and stores? Do students who live farther from school highlight the same food resources and stores as those who live nearby?

After maps are complete, load a digital maps tool or look at the atlas or print maps of your local area. Compare students' maps to the published maps. Do they notice all of the food resources available? Are there areas of town where there are fewer or no food resources? Would students describe those areas as a food desert?


Urban Issues: The Sprawl of Food Deserts

Food Access Research Atlas from the U.S. Department of Agriculture

The National Map

Google Maps


SS.6.3C, SS.6.4E, SS.7.9A, SS.7.9B, SS.8.12A

Watt Watchers of Texas is a Partner Program of Smart Energy Education.
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