Mapping Food Deserts in Southern California

Author: Nicolas R. Malloy

Table of Contents

  1. Mapping Food Deserts in Southern California
  2. Setting Up Your Workspace
  3. Downloading Data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS)
  4. Skill Drill: Downloading Population Data from the NHGIS
  5. Using the Project Tool
  6. Resetting the Data Frame Coordinate System
  7. Skill Drill: Use the Project Tool on U.S. Census Tracts
  8. Defining the Study Area Using an Attribute Query
  9. Skill Drill: Defining the Study Area Using an Attribute Query
  10. Refining the Study Area using a Spatial Query
  11. Performing a Table Join
  12. Skill Drill: Perform a Table Join for Total Population
  13. Adding a New Field to an Attribute Table
  14. Using the Field Calculator
  15. Skill Drill: Using an Attribute Query to Identify Percentages of Poverty
  16. Downloading Data from ArcGIS Online
  17. Skill Drill: Using the Project Tool to Match All Layers
  18. Using the Clip Tool
  19. Skill Drill: Using an Attribute Query to Locate Large Grocery Stores and Supermarkets
  20. Using the Buffer Tool
  21. Using the Erase Tool
  22. Skill Drill: Creating Small-Sized Maps for a Report

The goal of this activity is to use GIS analysis to map potential food deserts in Southern California. In this activity, you will create and organize a project folder using a standardized folder structure. You will then download and decompress the data from public sources. Using the data, you will conduct a GIS analysis using attribute selections with proximity and overlay operations.

Estimated time to complete this tutorial: 6 hours

Learning Outcomes

Students who complete this tutorial should be able to:

  • Summarize the steps for creating and organizing a project workspace folder structure
  • Illustrate the ability to download data from a public source
  • Manage spatial reference systems for an analysis
  • Practice conducting an attribute query
  • Carry out a spatial query
  • Demonstrate how to perform a table join
  • Add and populate fields in an attribute table
  • Show how to implement overlay operations such as clip and erase
  • Exemplify the use of proximity operations such as buffers
  • Practice changing map output size in ArcMap
  • Apply symbology and color choices to map features
  • Insert essential map elements using ArcMap
  • Export a high-resolution map


A food desert is a community, neighborhood, or region where people have limited access to affordable, nutritious food because they live far from a supermarket or large grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation. In this scenario, you are working for a non-profit organization that is interested in identifying potential food deserts in several Southern California counties.

You will use the following criteria in your analysis:

  • The study area will be limited to several Southern California counties including Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, and Imperial
  • Census tracts where people with poverty status is greater than or equal to 25%.
  • Areas more than one mile from a large grocery store or supermarket

Conduct the analysis using the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) system along with the North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 83). Southern California lies in Zone 11 of the UTM system.