Addressing Food Access and Food Insecurity in Maricopa County

In late summer and fall of 2016, the Food Assessment Coordination Team (FACT) developed a survey to identify and categorize the various types of food access, food insecurity, and anti-hunger work implemented by organizations throughout the county. We intend to use these results to convene stakeholders, educate and raise awareness about food access, foster partnerships, influence policy and support the work of these organizations. Fifty-five different organizations participated in our survey and the results are described here. You can download a full report of the results at the bottom of the page.

“Food Access” includes a diverse set of efforts to improve the quality, availability and affordability of healthy and culturally appropriate foods among individuals and communities with few options.

“Food Insecurity” is defined as limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.

Survey respondents were asked to check all of the various activities they currently, or have implemented in Maricopa County in the past five years.  These activities were divided under six different main categories of food access work.  The majority of projects, programs and activities underway fall under "Direct education and outreach".  See the tables below for a break down of work identified under each category.

Food Access Services and Strategies

Policy, Systems and Environmental Change Strategies

In addition to providing education, outreach and meals to meet the immediate needs of Maricopa County residents, many organizations are working to improve the laws, regulations, and physical landscapes that act as barriers or opportunities for better food access. Some are even working to change the ways in which organizations operate internally and in partnership with other organizations to make bigger and more long-term impacts. In the field of community health, these are often referred to as Policy, Systems and Environmental Change approaches.

"Policy Change" refers to efforts and activities that aim to influence formal laws, rules, and/or regulations enacted by elected officials at the city, county, state, or federal level. Most of these organizations are actively involved in either communicating directly with elected officials on policy issues, or educating and mobilizing other local organizations on policy issues.

"Systems Change" efforts are complex, ongoing, and often qualitative strategies that target changes at multiple organizational levels. The majority of these organizations are working to develop or improve distribution systems that redirect food to food insecure individuals that would otherwise be wasted. Others are working with farmers markets and other outlets on redemption systems that accept nutrition benefits like SNAP and WIC, as well as improving distribution systems in ways that create new market opportunities for food producers. Farm-to-School/Farm-to-Institution is another popular systems change strategy underway.

"Environmental Change" is a change made or maintained to a specific physical environment in order to make healthy and affordable foods more readily available. Many times, environmental change strategies are connected to policy and system changes. For this survey, we referred to these as "Creating or Improving Places for Food Access." 

Most of the organizations working in this area are providing technical assistance, resources and/or operating community, school and learning gardens. Many other organizations are providing technical assistance and resources to increase the availability and/or promotion of healthful foods at retail, worksites, churches, schools or other places throughout community.

Limitations & Funding

One limitation of our survey was that we did not inquire about specific policies or policy issues that organizations are focusing their food access efforts on. A few respondents told us: transportation, federal rules and federal programs. We did gather information on the funding sources that support work in the county, much of which is connected to federal and state policy. 

The bar chart below illustrates the proportion of government-funded programs to any otherwise-funded programs (including charitable gifts and donations), that support these organizations. 

Who Benefits From Food Access Efforts?

Organizations Target Various Types of Communities & Populations

The majority report serving low-income residents and people of color including Native Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, and African-Americans. 

In addition, respondents target...

"Food insecure children"
"Seniors"
"Families with children ages 0-5"
"Homeless adults"
"Residents who live in food deserts"
"Recently resettled refugees"


You can see the communities targeted by the organizations who took our survey, in the map to the right. 

Key Recommendations Made to the Maricopa County Food System Coalition

The majority of respondents would like help strengthening and making new connections

Many identified the need to better "unify" all of the food access efforts in order to "identify gaps and opportunities" while "avoiding duplication." 

Others noted the important role of the coalition in reaching out to new stakeholders, especially local governments and those outside the city of Phoenix. 

Some recommendations that came out of the survey said: 

                   "Help us market existing resources and programs to families."

           "Provide professional development on systems change."

                   "Make culturally acceptable healthy food more readily available." 


Organizations requested help to secure funding, food, and other resources by informing them when resources are available, providing technical assistance and even creating new sources and funding streams. 

Some specifically identified the need to expand storage, refrigeration, and infrastructure to improve food distribution. 


Developing policy briefs, policy language, advocating for policy and regulatory change, as well as building broad awareness around food access, food insecurity, and hunger issues were also identified as important roles for the coalition. 


In addition to paying attention to transportation issues around food distribution, many respondents identified transportation as a key barrier and major opportunity for improving access to healthy foods. Some noted that while it is ideal to provide affordable or free food outlets close to everyone, it may not be realistic and that improving transportation systems should not be overlooked.

Click below to view and download the full PDF report:

                                                                                                                                                                                                       Supermarket photo by I-5 Design & Manufacture