Exploring rural communities, food and environment


With this week's release of its Atlas of Small Town and Rural America, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given citizens a nifty tool to explore data on the lesser-populated parts of the country.

The interactive atlas provides a nice mix of statistics, combining numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the USDA and other federal agencies. With just a few clicks of the mouse, I can see that the plains and agricultural areas in many Western states have lost significant population in the past decade and also track the migration to growing cities like Las Vegas as well as resort areas like the Lake Tahoe area.

Despite the recent economic recession, these places have still experienced a lot more growth than they have contractions.  Gas producing regions like Wyoming's Sublette County have also boomed in population, with a 48.5 percent increase in 9 years -- which isn't surprising, but when displayed visually makes one think about the other impacts of oil and gas development, as more and more people move to energy patches experiencing booms. Though the atlas navigation is a little clunky here and there, it's still a useful tool.

Percentage population change, 2000-2009. Darkest green is 33.1 to 92.1 percent growth rate, lighter green is 9.1 to 33 percent, yell0w-green is 0.1-9 percent, light orange is -8.9 to 0 percent growth rate, and darkest orange is -43.5 to -9 percent.

The agriculture department has been getting busy with its interactive applications. A few months ago, it also launched the Food and Environment Atlas. While that map is not rural-specific, when you plot such items as food deserts, proximity to grocery stores, and food insecurity, parts of rural America stand out.  For example, Indian reservations seem to host larger percentages of houses with no car that are also farther than one mile from a grocery store. Child poverty rates, also mapped on the atlas, appear to be high on reservations and in areas with larger Hispanic populations.

Child poverty rates by county.  Darkest blue is 35.1 to 67.1 percent poverty rate, next darkest is 25.1 to 35 percent poverty rate, second lightest is 15.1 to 25 percent poverty rate, lightest blue is 2.8 to 15 percent poverty rate.

Of course, all this data doesn't tell us why any of these trends exist or how to ameliorate them. But by making the raw numbers more accessible, the USDA provides a platform for a larger conversation about the health and welfare of rural America.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.