Abstract Background Policies that improve access to healthy, affordable foods may improve population health and reduce health disparities. In the United States most food access policy research focuses on urban communities even though residents of rural communities face disproportionately higher risk for nutrition-related chronic diseases compared to residents of urban communities. The purpose of this study was to (1) identify the factors associated with access to healthy, affordable food in rural communities in the United States; and (2) prioritize a meaningful and feasible rural food policy research agenda. Methods This study was conducted by the Rural Food Access Workgroup (RFAWG), a workgroup facilitated by the Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network. A national sample of academic and non-academic researchers, public health and cooperative extension practitioners, and other experts who focus on rural food access and economic development was invited to complete a concept mapping process that included brainstorming the factors that are associated with rural food access, sorting and organizing the factors into similar domains, and rating the importance of policies and research to address these factors. As a last step, RFAWG members convened to interpret the data and establish research recommendations. Results Seventy-five participants in the brainstorming exercise represented the following sectors: non-extension research (n = 27), non-extension program administration (n = 18), “other” (n = 14), policy advocacy (n = 10), and cooperative extension service (n = 6). The brainstorming exercise generated 90 distinct statements about factors associated with rural food access in the United States; these were sorted into 5 clusters. Go Zones were established for the factors that were rated highly as both a priority policy target and a priority for research. The highest ranked policy and research priorities include strategies designed to build economic viability in rural communities, improve access to federal food and nutrition assistance programs, improve food retail systems, and increase the personal food production capacity of rural residents. Respondents also prioritized the development of valid and reliable research methodologies to measure variables associated with rural food access. Conclusions This collaborative, trans-disciplinary, participatory process, created a map to guide and prioritize research about polices to improve healthy, affordable food access in rural communities.