Using Instagram to Measure Food Deserts | Net Impact

Using Instagram to Measure Food Deserts

A team of researchers found a new way to measure the types of food resident of food deserts are consuming: Instagram
A team of researchers found a new way to measure the types of food resident of food deserts are consuming: Instagram

48 million Americans struggle with hunger

Food deserts are areas where is it difficult for residents to access healthy fresh food. They are largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers, and other healthy food providers in the area. There are socio-economic factors to food deserts; they are most commonly found in communities of color and low-income. Due to difficulties in accessing healthy food, communities in these areas are at higher risks of malnutrition. 

Food deserts are usually measured by the distance people have to travel to get to a large grocery store. As a part of First Lady, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, the USDA created a food desert locator. Over 2 million people, or two percent of all US households, live more than one mile away from a grocery store and do not own a car (Source: Food Empowerment Project, While measuring distance is easy, researchers have a much harder time measuring what residents in these areas eat on a daily basis. Usually, researchers rely on surveys to collect this information, however they cannot record every meal. How can researchers get a better idea of what people are eating on a day to day basis? The same way you find out what your friends had for brunch last weekend: Instagram.

Mining Instagram as a research method

A research team from Georgia Institute of Technology published a study where they analysed three million public food-related Instagrams tagged with food words and geotagged each location. They divided areas into food deserts and non-food deserts and compared information from a food desert to a non-food desert with similar demographics. Nutritional value of the food was estimated and in every region in the US, food-related Instagrams had higher cholesterol, sugar, and fat contents in food deserts than non-food deserts. Researchers were able to use a model to accurately predict whether an Instagram picture was from a food desert or not 80 percent of the time. This study shows the difference that access to food has on what people eat and which foods people choose to show off.  

Communities living in food deserts are in need of better access to healthy and affordable food. Net Impact has partnered with Newman’s Own Foundation to launch the Newman’s Own Foundation Challenge and some of our own participants are working with communities living in food deserts to educate and bring affordable healthy food to residents. Visit Net Impact’s Newman’s Own Foundation page to learn more.