Food Access Improved for WIC Participants Using Spatial Analysis

by Jonathan Davis, MA; Mindy Jossefides, RD; Travis Lane, BA; David Pijawka, PhD; Mallory Phelps, BS; and Jamie Ritchey, PhD, MPH


The time needed to travel to stores to access healthy food can be a burden for many families, particularly in rural areas and urban areas located in food deserts. This problem is further exacerbated in tribal communities where the healthy food options can be limited and travel requirements to access stores with a variety of healthy foods are significant.

An evaluation by the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (ITCA WIC) found that by setting travel distance goals for healthy food access to nearest authorized stores they could evaluate the overall efficiency of their store network and recommend new stores that would reduce travel-related costs to WIC participants. The travel distance objective identified by ITCA WIC for urban and non-urban areas (as designated by the US Census 2010) was one and five miles, respectively.

Using these service area objectives, ITCA WIC found that in 2014, the store network served 39% and 66% of urban and non-urban clients, respectively. With the strategic addition of eight new authorized stores in 2016, the service area improved to 41% and 74% for urban and non-urban areas, respectively. Overall travel time was reduced by 15 minutes for WIC participants who lived more than 10 miles from the nearest store.

The study, “A Spatial Evaluation of Healthy Food Access: Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) participants,” mapped 11,000 ITCA WIC participants from 2014, and 12,000 ITCA WIC participants from 2016, with authorized stores and nearby potential stores. The study was published in September 2019 in a special supplement issue of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice (JPHMP), highlighting the work of Tribal Epidemiology Centers

We can improve #nutrition access for #WIC participants (through reduction in travel time) by authorizing stores that best meet participants' spatial orientation. Click To Tweet

Dr. Ritchey, ITCA Tribal Epidemiology Center (TEC) Director noted that, “In public health practice, we know that access to healthy food is largely reliant on built environments where individuals work, live, and spend leisure time. The inability to access healthy foods can lead to adverse childhood health consequences, including obesity and nutrient deficiencies, and increased the risk of chronic diseases later in life.”

“The ITCA WIC program is instrumental in supporting clients with access to breastfeeding support, improved household food security status, and children within WIC programs have been shown to have higher academic achievement than low income children not in the WIC program,” says ITCA Assistant Director, Travis Lane. “Our ITCA program serves both Tribal and non-Tribal members in Arizona in an effort to improve health for all.”

“Seeing where our participants are located in relation to our current authorized stores is a considerable asset in identifying areas for improvement within our service areas,” said Jonathan Davis, GIS Analyst for ITCA TEC. “By repeating this analysis, we can see if our clients are moving and can adjust our service network to continue to best meet their needs.”

Dr. Pijawka, Arizona State University, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning Professor added, “Geospatial analysis provides critical decision support and insight, which allows us to see the impact a single store has on the whole service network. Even if a potential store doesn’t improve the service area, we can see if it can reduce the travel burden for our participants.”

Mindy Jossefides, ITCA WIC Director, noted that “This work shows us that we are successful in meeting the vast majority of WIC clients’ shopping needs, while challenging us to work to improve access to stores, which will ultimately improve their nutrient intake and health.”

Click to Read

Mallory Phelps, ITCA WIC Vendor Manager, related that “This study has greatly assisted our program in maximizing our resources to strategically serve our communities.”

This evaluation framework uses secondary data, and is a cost-effective method to evaluate WIC participant access to stores with healthy food. Authorizing additional stores for WIC improves overall population access to healthy foods beyond those that are WIC eligible. This is particularly important in remote and rural areas where stores may be less inclined to serve a variety of fresh produce and dairy products if they were not required to do so in order to comply with WIC requirements. Authorizing only needed stores ensures that WIC state agency resources are utilized effectively and efficiently. Reducing travel distances and travel times for WIC participants reduces stress and commuting expenses that can be used for other important items.

You Might Also Enjoy These Related Posts:

About the Authors

Jonathan Davis, MA, Is a GIS analyst for the Tribal Epidemiology Center, at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc.. Mindy Jossefides, RD, is the Director of Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., Travis Lane, BA, is the Assistant Director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. David Pijawka, PhD, is a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. Mallory Phelps, BS, is the Vendor Manager of the Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., Jamie Ritchey, PhD, MPH, is the Director of the Tribal Epidemiology Center at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc.

About the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc.

The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona was established in 1952 to provide a united voice for tribal governments located in the State of Arizona to address common issues and concerns and to promote Indian self-reliance through public policy development. ITCA provides an independent capacity to obtain, analyze, and disseminate information vital to Indian community self-development. ITCA operates more than 30 projects and employs a staff of 70 to provide on-going technical assistance and training to tribal governments in program planning and development, research and data collection, resource development, management and evaluation. The goal of ITCA and its commitment to the Member Tribes is to ensure the self-determination of Indian tribal governments through their participation in the development of the policies and programs which affect their lives.

About the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children

WIC is a nutrition program that helps families feed their children healthy foods. WIC provides nutrition information, healthy foods, and help accessing health care to moderate to low-income families. The program is available to families with pregnant women, new mothers, and children under the age of five.