40 maps that explain
food in America

40 maps that explain food in America

by Ezra Klein and Susannah Locke on June 9, 2014

The future of the nations will depend on the manner of how they feed themselves, wrote the French epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826. Almost 200 years later, how nations feed themselves has gotten a lot more complicated. That’s particularly true in the US, where food insecurity coexists with an obesity crisis, where fast food is everywhere and farmer’s markets are spreading, where foodies have never had more power and McDonald’s has never had more locations, and where the possibility of a barbecue-based civil war is always near. So here are 40 maps, charts, and graphs that show where our food comes from and how we eat it, with some drinking thrown in for good measure.

    Food production

  1. American agriculture in 1922

    American agriculture in 1922

    Let's start with a bit of fun. This gorgeous map, found by Redditor Sverdrupian, was published by the meatpacking firm Armour and Company in 1922. It purports to show the principal agricultural products across the country at that time. Records were worse then, and the mapmakers admit the difficulty of the project. "It has been impossible to locate with geographic accuracy within state lines, all of the principal products of some of the states," they write. "Nonetheless, the principal products of each state are indicated, and the geographic location of the principal products in the divisions of the United States have been effected with a fair degree of accuracy." The broad message of the map, though, is right at the top: America's strength as a nation was substantially derived from its strength as an agricultural power. The huge expanse of American land and the vast number of climates across the country allowed the US to grow a more diverse set of crops and raise more kinds of animals than our competitors. "The United States is the most self-sustaining nation in the world," Armour and Co brag.

  2. We have fewer people working in agriculture now

    We have fewer people working in agriculture now


    We have fewer people working in agriculture now

    So this is a chart, not a map (that'll happen occasionally in this list). But what it shows is kind of amazing. In 1840, almost 70 percent of the American labor force worked in agriculture. America's economy was, flatly, about agriculture. But that was changing — and fast. By 2000, barely two percent of the American labor force worked in agriculture. The US economy had transformed totally.

  3. And we keep losing farms

    And we keep losing farms

    As farmers have been disappearing, so have farms. In this map, each red dot is 20 farms that are no more, and each blue dot represents 20 new farms. Note the losses in Kentucky and Tennessee and the gains in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In just five years, the US experienced a net loss of 90,000 farms.

  4. But we keep growing more food

    But we keep growing more food


    But we keep growing more food

    The story of the decline in farm labor and farms looks, at first glance, like the story of the decline in farming. But it's not. This chart only goes back to 1948 but its message is clear: the US is producing more food than ever before. So even as the share of the workforce laboring on farms has fallen from almost everyone to nearly no one, the absolute quantity of crops and meats has risen. That's because farming has seen incredible productivity improvements. From better seeds to automated irrigation systems to pesticides to tractors, an industry that used to require tremendous manpower is now built on powerful technologies. Forget welcoming our robot overlords. They're feeding us.

  5. Where are people making money from crops and where from livestock?

    Where are people making money from crops and where from livestock?

    Cartographer Bill Rankin used USDA data to build this beautiful map of the value of agriculture produced around the country. The greener areas are the most valuable for crop production. The redder areas are the most valuable for raising livestock. California is, unsurprisingly, the site of much of the most valuable land for crops. But Wisconsin and North Carolina are making more money off livestock than many realize.

  6. Which crops are harvested where?

    Which crops are harvested where?

    This map lays out where crops are being grown across the country. Many areas these days are focusing almost exclusively on one crop — a practice called monoculture. Corn covers more land in the US than any other crop. Some counties are up to 63 percent covered in corn. And second place? Soybeans. People aren't growing the stuff just for tofu, either. The majority of American soy becomes feed for livestock.

  7. Cows. Are. Everywhere.

    Cows. Are. Everywhere.

    If there is one thing to conclude from this map, it's that cows are pretty much everywhere. Just look at all that pink. Cattle are all over, from sea to shining sea, except for the deserts of the Southwest and some remote mountains in upper New York state and West Virginia. But cows aren't the only farm animals of interest. Pigs and chickens also make an impressive showing, but with a more regional pattern. They're popular east of Colorado, with pigs gathered in the North and chickens in the South. California also has a chicken belt. And check out that blue blob in Texas: that's sheep and goats.

  8. The economics of farming

  9. Average sales by farm

    Average sales by farm

    This map shows how much money each farm is making on average, and there is huge variation. Some are selling less than $10,000 in goods a year. But others are selling more than $750,000. How do they get so productive? The methods vary. That area along the Mississippi is raking in the dough with soy and cotton. The rich region in Texas is doing it through cattle. Part of North Carolina is making good money off of a variety of livestock. And California is doing well with a mix of livestock, produce, and nuts.

  10. Farmers are getting older

    Farmers are getting older

    In America today, the average principal farm operator is 58 years old, nearing the age of retirement. And that age has been getting older and older each year for some time now. According to the USDA, in 2012 about a third of farmers were older than 65. But that doesn't mean that these people are necessarily running gigantic operations. The average farm is the US is small. About 75 percent of farms make less than $50,000 a year.

  11. A lot of farmers aren't making a living off of their farms

    A lot of farmers aren't making a living off of their farms

    Many farm operators aren't making their living from farming. For the most part that's because most farms are small, and only a few are big. For farms that bring in less than $350,000 a year, people are most likely making their living through some other means. And about half of farms sell less than $10,000 of goods a year, but they're not producing much to sell either. So who is making most of the food? The big farms. According to the US Department of Agriculture's most recent survey in 2012, about 4 percent of US farms currently produce 66 percent of farm products, by value.

  12. Here are the cash crops

    Here are the cash crops

    Corn is king. This pie chart shows how much money the US's harvests bring in, and the conclusion is unmistakable: corn, corn, corn. Corn is responsible for about a third of crop cash receipts, with some $64 billion a year. And together, corn and soybeans make up almost half of America's crop revenues.

  13. Watch corn eat sunlight, from space

    Watch corn eat sunlight, from space

    This GIF shows how much photosynthesis is taking place in February, May, August, and November, averaged across five years. You can see the growing season come and go, especially the peak in the corn belt in August. How do you measure photosynthesis? Plants performing photosynthesis absorb light from the sun, but they also emit a small fraction of that light as a fluorescent glow. Human eyes aren't sensitive enough to see the glow, but instruments on a particular European meteorological satellite are. NASA analyzed the data set, which includes the entire Earth, and found that the US corn belt during corn season does more photosynthesis than anywhere else on the planet. The analysis also showed that previous models of Earth's carbon cycle had underestimated the corn belt's productivity by roughly 50 percent.

  14. Food, policy, and health

  15. GMO labeling

    GMO labeling

    This map shows whether foods that include genetically modified ingredients, such as GMO corn and soy, are required by law to be labeled. (Countries colored the palest green have no labeling regulations. Ones in darker greens have labeling laws of increasing stringency. Blue countries ban GMO foods altogether.) There's no scientific evidence that a GMO food is more dangerous to someone's health than a non-GMO food. But this is one of those cases where all around the world the scientific data is the same, but cultural attitudes about it could not be more different. For example, the US doesn't require any GMO labeling at all. But Europe completely disagrees.

  16. Total meat consumption

    Total meat consumption

    Who's eating meat? This map shows how much meat gets consumed in each country, with each nation's sized skewed accordingly. It's not all that surprising that the world's most populous nations — China, India, and the US — end up looking pretty huge, here. China, for its part, is the biggest meat consumer — evidence not just of its size, but also of its increasing wealth. And recently, China's surging taste for beef has been increasing prices across the world.

  17. Meat consumption, per capita

    Meat consumption, per capita

    The previous map showed that China was consuming the most meat. But China also has a lot of people. When the data is examined per person, the situation looks quite different. This map shows how much meat, on average, people around the world eat every year. Each person in the US is consuming roughly 250 pounds of meat — that's about three quarter-pounder burgers a day. People in China eat about half the meat that Americans do. Some of that might be cultural, but much of it is simple economics: meat is expensive compared to plant-based foods, and China's GDP per capita is around a fifth of the US's.

  18. Food deserts

    Food deserts

    One concept that has gained traction recently is that areas that have limited access to healthy food end up with populations of less healthy people. These areas are called food deserts. The concept sounds logical, and you can see in this map that there are some locations where people would have to take a bus, subway, or friend's car to get to a supermarket. But whether these deserts lead to poorer health is still being debated. Sometimes areas with fewer supermarkets make up for it with more corner stores. Then again, some giant supermarkets have disgusting produce that few would want to eat. One recent study found that poorer neighborhoods have more grocery stores than richer ones. Another paper found no relationship between types of nearby food and childhood weight. The discussion on this is far from over. And for those who wish to discuss, the USDA's interactive Food Access Research Atlas is here.

  19. Food stamps

    Food stamps

    The food stamp program, now known as SNAP, helps roughly 40 million low-income Americans buy food to eat. That's roughly 1 in 10 people. But food stamp participants aren't spread out evenly across the country. As much as a quarter of the population participates in SNAP in Oregon, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. But less than 10 percent of some other states do. The deep recession has spiked growth in the program, especially in Florida, Rhode Island, Nevada, Idaho, and Utah. In all five states, participation at least doubled from 2008 to 2012.

  20. Obesity over time

    Obesity over time


    Obesity over time

    This map shows obesity rates since 1985. When the GIF starts, many states were so unconcerned about obesity that they weren't even tracking it. Of those that were, none had an obesity rate higher than 14 percent. By 1994, all states had data, and the worst were 19 percent obese. And by 2010, 12 states reported that they were at least 30 percent obese. That's a doubling over the course of this GIF. You can see that the obesity epidemic is especially bad in southern states, but this is truly a national problem.

  21. The chart that might explain the obesity crisis

    The chart that might explain the obesity crisis

    In this graph, Stephan J. Guyenet, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington, plots the rise of obesity (in red and blue) and the increase in food consumption (in green) over the past few decades. Since 1970, the incidence of obesity has more than doubled to about 35 percent of adults. At the same time, Americans are eating roughly 400 more calories a day, an increase of about 20 percent. Guyenet argues that the mathematics works out such that this one trend — the increase in calorie consumption — can account for the entire rise in obesity.

  22. Where are people's calories coming from?

    Where are people's calories coming from?

    This graph of USDA data shows what people have been eating from the 1970s to today and where the increase in calories is coming from. On the whole, consumption of fruits and vegetables, dairy, and meat has stayed relatively stable over that period of time. But starting in the '80s, Americans have been eating more grains, caloric sweeteners (such as sugar and corn syrup), and fats. What seems promising, though, is a plateauing or decrease of all six food categories in recent years.

  23. The new food pyramid is a plate

    The new food pyramid is a plate

    The USDA once encouraged healthy eating with its iconic food pyramids, with grains at the bottom and fats and sweets at the top. In 2011, the department dropped its pyramid in favor of this plate — officially called MyPlate. The idea is to make your plate look like MyPlate: about half fruits and veggies, with some grains, protein, and low-fat dairy, such as milk or yogurt. The guidelines also come with several tips, including to strive to eat whole grains, watch portion sizes, and drink water instead of sugary beverages.

  24. How Americans are (not) following USDA guidelines

    How Americans are (not) following USDA guidelines

    So, how well have Americans been following the USDA's new MyPlate nutrition guide? Not all that well. On the whole, people in the US are still in meat-and-potatoes mode, even though that hasn't been the recommended plate for quite some time. They've been eating more than enough meat and grains. But, as a proportion of their intake, they're not eating nearly enough fruit, vegetables, or dairy.

  25. Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables

    Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables


    Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables

    This data is from 2009, but it still shows interesting regional trends in who's eating their fruits and vegetables. The CDC suggests at least two servings of fruit and at least three servings of veggies a day. But its data shows every single state in the union is failing. Even in the areas that eat the most fruit — the Northeast, Colorado, and California — less than half the population is meeting the CDC's fruit goals. The situation for vegetables is even worse. Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and some New England states come out on top, but only 30 to 35 percent of their residents are meeting the CDC's vegetable goals.

  26. Regional food preferences

  27. Whose barbecue is the best?

    Whose barbecue is the best?

    There is perhaps no American food whose regional variations and definitions — and even spellings — are more contested than that of barbecue/barbeque/BBQ. (Note: according to those who appreciate technicalities, a barbecue is when someone cooks with wood smoke. That means there is no such thing as a propane or coal barbecue. That's just grilling.) This map, from Texas Monthly, is ready to put up a fight in favor of the various varieties of barbecue that the Lone Star State produces. Other major contenders include the vinegary pulled pork of the Carolinas and Memphis-style wet and dry ribs. People from those areas may not find this map precisely accurate.

  28. The map of American pizza chains

    The map of American pizza chains

    This is the best map of the worst pizza. It shows the nearest pizza place to each location, from among nine popular chains. You can see the dominance of Pizza Hut, its abundant red squares scattered across the land like pepperoni. And Domino's in blue is also doing well throughout the East. But there are still regional favorites, many of which are fairly unheard of outside of their spheres of influence. Check out what Godfather's Pizza (in brown) is doing in Iowa. (Why Iowa? The chain was founded in neighboring Nebraska.) And Papa Murphy's pizza (in green) is spreading out on the West Coast. (It was founded in Vancouver, Washington.)

  29. What's your state's most iconic chain?

    What's your state's most iconic chain?

    This probably isn't what most people have in mind when they talk about eating local, but even chain restaurants can have a regional side. Thrillist mapped what it considers to be the most "iconic" chain from each state, and the results are sure to be as hotly contested as such lists always are. (For example, note the lack of Friendly's. Really?) Some are local icons that former locals then moan about for the rest of their lives (cough, displaced Californians and their In-N-Out Burger). Others, like McDonald's, have been exported all over the world.

  30. How far are you from a McDonald's?

    How far are you from a McDonald's?

    McDonald's has more than 35,000 locations on Earth, and the US has the highest concentration of them — about one for every 20,000 residents, according to The Guardian's Datablog. This map, by artist and scientist Stephen Von Worley, shows the distance to the nearest McDonald's throughout the continental US. It doesn't look all that different from what the Earth looks like at night — the crowded East and West Coast, the sparsely populated areas west of the Rockies. And where is the "McFarthest Spot," as Von Worley puts it? Within that dark space in upper South Dakota, a 145-mile drive from the nearest Mickey D's.

  31. Which fast food restaurants dominate where?

    Which fast food restaurants dominate where?

    Stephen Von Worley's Beefspace map shows a country of fast food. Each point has the colors of the three most popular restaurants at that location. Black is McDonald's, so you can feel the relative influence of non-Mickey D's restaurants by the splashes of color. It's another example of the power of regional chains: look at the puddle of Sonic blue spilling out over the South. (The map is also designed so that the dots' locations are the places where people are most likely to spend cash, according to Dirk Brockmann's wheresgeorge.com research.)

  32. Where is Waffle House?

    Where is Waffle House?

    Waffle House was founded in Georgia in 1955. Since then it has multiplied like crazy in its home state and expanded to more than 1,700 locations across (some of) the country. The 24-hour restaurant's key menu item is its old-school waffle that is sweeter and flatter than its Belgian cousins. The restaurant also has some of the best hash browns in the world. But American access to Waffle House is currently limited to roughly half the states of the union. No, I don't care that you might have an IHOP nearby. Seriously. This is a serious map about serious breakfast food.

  33. Where are hurricanes (and Waffle House)?

    Where are hurricanes (and Waffle House)?

    FEMA has been using Waffle Houses as unofficial indicators of disaster recovery in recent years. Why? First of all, the chains are conveniently located (red dots) across the hurricane zones of the US (the gray lines on this map are hurricane and tropical storm tracks since 1851), as you can see in this map from Popular Science. Waffle Houses usually operate 24 hours a day and have exceptional disaster preparedness that lets them open back up quickly after a storm, the magazine reported. So whether a Waffle House has made it through an extreme weather event can be a handy thing to know. Because of this, Waffle Houses have been reporting their statuses to FEMA since 2012.

  34. Where are Carl's Jr. and Hardy's?

    Where are Carl's Jr. and Hardy's?

    In 1997, the regional wars between the fast food joints Carl's Jr. and Hardee's took an odd turn when the California-founded Carl's Jr. bought out the North Carolina-founded Hardee's. But because the two restaurants have such strong local identities, they didn't merge under one banner. Instead, they kept the name that was most powerful in that state. The exceptions are Wyoming and Oklahoma, where both names are in use. Together, Carl's Jr. and Hardee's have about 3,000 locations and are the fifth largest fast food chain in the US. Meanwhile, New England is eating Mickey D's and Burger King and has absolutely no idea what the big fuss is all about.

  35. Where's In-N-Out Burger?

    Where's In-N-Out Burger?

    This map shows the counties in the US that are graced by the presence of at least one In-N-Out Burger. Founded in California in 1948, the family-owned chain has grown to roughly 300 exceptionally well-loved locations. And it has continued to expand since this map was made. For example, according to In-N-Out Burger's website, there are several locations in Travis County, Texas, which contains the state capital of Austin. And Bell County, Texas, is about to get one, too. But, sadly for the East Coast, In-N-Out remains a decidedly Western phenomenon.

  36. How America drinks

  37. Where you can drink on the street

    Where you can drink on the street

    The Huffington Post created this fairly thorough, although admittedly not absolutely complete, map of where one may enjoy the pleasures of imbibing alcoholic beverages in public. Blue states don't have any statewide ban on public drinking, and green states have pending legislation that would allow it. Local laws may vary, though. Towns marked with yellow stars let people drink in most public places. Ones with purple stars allow drinking only in certain areas. The Huffington Post's accompanying feature on local drinking laws is well worth a read, too.

  38. Bars vs. grocery stores

    Bars vs. grocery stores

    On this map, red is for bars, and yellow is for grocery stores. More specifically, this map shows whether there are more references for one or the other in the Google Maps directory at a certain location. It suggests that Wisconsin, Illinois, and North Dakota have more bars than grocery stores. But what about per capita? According to Census data, the US has roughly one and a half bars per 10,000 people. But North Dakota, Montana, and Wisconsin have more than three times that number. (For the record, Vox's Matthew Yglesias thinks it's just fine to have more bars than grocery stores.)

  39. Beer vs. wine

    Beer vs. wine

    Two geographers from the University of Kentucky created this map. It shows where people were tweeting about which alcoholic beverages in 2012. That year, people in the US produced almost a million geotagged tweets about beer alone, providing a rich data set for analysis. Using social media chatter as a proxy for consumption, it seems that this nation has a thoroughly wino East and West Coast and a beer-drinking Midwest. (The West apparently should tweet more if its residents want their drinking preferences to be known to geographers.)

  40. Top beers by state

    Top beers by state

    This map of a nonscientific survey of 5,249 Americans shows that the nation's favorite beers are a patchwork of both history and innovation: from Yuengling — the oldest operating brewery in America — to the Colorado-based Blue Moon Brewing Company, which has only been making its Belgian-style wheat beers since 1995. Although this map might make it seem that the country has gone completely gaga for Blue Moon, it's important to keep in mind that some states have more people than others. California alone has about as many residents as the western Blue Moon region combined (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, and Minnesota). Texas' Bud Light pulls a lot of weight, too. (Also, people's favorite beers may not be the beers they drink most often.)

  41. Unusually popular Starbucks orders

    Unusually popular Starbucks orders

    Starbucks has about 13,000 locations in the US, roughly the same number as McDonald's. Quartz worked with the coffee chain to create this map of drinks that are more popular in each city over other cities. (Note: this doesn't mean that San Diego's favorite beverage is the Green tea Frappuccino. It means that San Diego orders a greater percentage of them than the other cities on the map.) Note the blue iced beverage region in the hot, lower latitudes. And Boston, despite its location in the chilly North, has a love of iced coffee, too. Seattleites, who live in Starbucks' hometown, are the most likely to order an extra shot of espresso in their beverages.

  42. The great soft drink nomenclature debate

    The great soft drink nomenclature debate

    Pop or soda. Soda or pop. Alan McConchie's nonscientific soft-drink poll has collected more than 300,000 preferences and counting. As of April 4, the nationwide tally has soda (41 percent) is ever so slightly beating out pop (39 percent). Soda's support is centered in the Northeast, California, and a hub of influence near the Missouri/Illinois border. The rest of the country seems to be generally split between a pop-loving North and a Coke-loving South.

  43. The rise of soft drinks

    The rise of soft drinks

    According to this chart from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the US production of soda per capita has more than quadrupled since the 1940s. In 2004, the industry was making the equivalent of more than 500 cans of soda per person per year. The rise of diet soda has lagged behind the rise of regular soda, but by 2004 diet made up about a third of soft drinks being produced. (Note: It's possible that some of the production represented in this chart were exports for consumption outside of the US.)

  44. The rise of bottled water

    The rise of bottled water

    In recent years, Americans seem to be drinking a bit less soda. In addition, the US has seen a 50 percent increase in bottled water consumption. This pattern may have something to do with the decline in other beverages, such as juice, powdered drinks, and soft drinks. But it also might be replacing some consumption of tap water, which isn't on the chart. Americans are also drinking more wine and spirits instead of beer. And they're drinking so much more wine and spirits that it seems to be an increase in overall alcohol consumption. Cheers!

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