Accessing Food in Northern Rural Climates

How Living in a Food Desert Impacts Obesity


Faye Conte

In small rural states like Vermont, does the built food environment impact where people purchase food and obesity rates, or do meal patterns and obesity simply come down to individual food choice? While pursuing an M.S. in Community Development and Applied Economics, Transportation Research Center Scholar Faye Conte was able to take an interdisciplinary look at these questions. With the support of Professors Jane Kolodinsky, Brian Lee, and Austin Troy, Faye used data from the Transportation in your Life Survey, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and led by the Center for Rural Studies and Transportation Research Center, to explore the impact that the built food environment and food choice have on meal patterns in northern New England, and to identify how these three factors influence obesity.


To illustrate the built food environment and food access, the location of food venues, including grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants, were mapped using GIS, and the distance from survey respondents’ homes to food stores were measured.  Two conceptual models were created to predict meal patterns and obesity using multivariate logistic regression. The first examines how the built food environment and food choice impact meal patterns, or where people eat meals. The second model looks at how meal patterns, the built food environment, and food choice influence BMI, or if respondents were not overweight, overweight, or obese.


Results of this study suggest that unlike regions of the United States with large food deserts, the built food environment in rural northern New England provides adequate access to food for most respondents and does not determine where consumers eat meals, though it has a small impact on obesity. The most significant finding of this study is that individual food choice has a substantial direct influence on both meal patterns and obesity; those who say they choose a healthy diet are more likely to eat meals at home and not be overweight or obese. Policies increasing access to affordable healthy food and encouraging healthy food choices at any food venue may be effective in combating obesity.


Results of the work of the team that Faye’s research was part of can be seen in the TRC Research Report #12-002


Faye graduated from UVM in the spring of 2012, and works at Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide education and advocacy organization dedicated to ending the injustice of malnutrition and hunger for all Vermonters. Through her work on senior hunger issues and advocacy and outreach for the 3SquaresVT program (formerly food stamps), she is able to use the insight gained from her interdisciplinary graduate work to help all Vermonters access and afford nutritious food.



Find more opportunities in Food Systems Research:

3rd Annual Food Systems Symposium

– October 31, 2012, 9a-4p – UVM Davis Center –
A series of presentations highlighting the importance of partnerships between the academic disciplines and communities’ experiential knowledge to increase the breadth of innovative research opportunities and funding successes that can address complex community needs.

Contact Haylley at 802-656-9897 or

if you’d like the agenda or more information.


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