An Overabundance of Fast Food: Food Swamps Are the New Food Deserts

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New York, Broadway at night. Take away fast food kiosks selling hot dog

A homemade salad isn’t a realistic option when you have to walk more than a mile to buy ingredients. For millions of people living in low-income communities, it’s more likely they’ll just order a fast-food burger. They live in areas known as “food swamps,” and it’s a growing threat to health throughout the United States.

Compared with the better-known “food desert” phenomenon of areas lacking fresh, healthy options, food swamps are places where unhealthy foods are more accessible than anything else. Unhealthy options outnumber healthy alternatives by as much as four to one in these areas, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

Together, the problems that both food swamps and food deserts create require creativity to overcome, and social workers and nonprofit agencies across the nation are focused on untangling these issues.

A Closer Look at Food Swamps 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stipulates that food deserts are areas with poverty levels of at least 20% where a minimum of either 500 people or 33% of the population lives over a mile from the nearest supermarket. 

While food swamps can occasionally overlap with food deserts, they are usually separate. Food swamps, according to the USDA’s definition, are communities where fast food and junk food are overwhelmingly more available than healthy alternatives. This is most frequently caused by chain restaurants and corner stores that stock unhealthy, processed foods.

The spread of food swamps in recent decades has been staggering. A national study by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that 60% of the calories Americans buy are from highly processed foods. An article in The Guardian reported that, in many places, drug stores are selling more food than grocery stores are, and that food is typically pre-packaged and lacks nutrients. 

To understand the power of food swamps, it’s necessary to study the daily meal choices made by their residents. In 2011, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a 15-year study showing that the presence of supermarkets doesn’t make residents more likely to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. This was especially true for men, who tended to choose quick, processed meals. 

The reasons for these unhealthy choices were varied; advertising, cultural norms, and affordability were all factors. While the study focused on food deserts, the findings underscore the concerns with food swamps. There may be healthier options, but most would choose unhealthy options when the unhealthy options are more plentiful. 

Food swamps are even more of a problem in neighborhoods where there is greater socio-economic disparity. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health said that “low-income and racial-ethnic minorities are more likely . . . to live near unhealthy food retailers, which has been associated with poor diet.” Those retailers often pack the shelves with processed snack foods, and the Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy found that the amount of shelf space stores reserve for snack foods is associated with higher BMI scores in the neighborhoods those stores serve.  

In the larger picture of food swamps and deserts, food swamps have been found to be more directly connected with obesity and other health concerns than food deserts, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Poor food choices impact more than just the waist line, though. Heavily processed foods rich in fats and sugars can lead to chronic inflammation and unbalanced gut microbiome, which early research has indicated may have a negative impact on brain chemistry. This negative impact can result in mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and an inability to regulate mood.

Moreover, poor diets can result in other health concerns, such as diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. Heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes-related problems cost patients millions in medical bills every year. For residents in low-income communities, this perpetuates the cycle of poverty through increased debt and financial stress.

Policies Designed to End Food Swamps

The complex problem of food swamps isn’t easy to solve, but groups have been implementing different initiatives. Often, collaboration among public, private, and nonprofit agencies has been necessary to effect this much-needed change. For example, a group called Healthy Retail SF has partnered with 1,150 mom and pop stores in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District to add more healthy and affordable food options to its food swamp.

In Baltimore, new programs have moved farmers’ markets to the city center. These programs have also implemented new measures that allow food vouchers to be used at these markets to encourage the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income seniors. 

Meanwhile, The Food Trust has been working in a food swamp in Philadelphia to provide education in schools and communities about cooking healthy meals. They’re also advocating for initiatives that let SNAP recipients get more for their money when they make healthier food purchases. 

In the food swamps of Washington, D.C., a group called D.C. Central Kitchen is stocking shelves of corner stores with fresh-cut fruit and ready-made meals with healthier ingredients. Another collective, called D.C. Urban Gardeners Network, has been making a push for more agricultural gardens throughout the city. 

Food swamps are a pervasive and complicated issue in neighborhoods throughout the United States, and social workers are continuing to study their causes and explore new remedies. If you’re interested in helping resolve food swamps, food deserts, and more consider earning an online bachelor of social work from Malone University Online. Our program provides field instruction, giving you the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience. Working alongside our exceptional faculty, you’ll gain the mentorship and guidance you need from seasoned professionals with years of real-world experience.

Fare and Square Brings Hope to Those Living in a Food Desert

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Fare and Square – First Nonprofit Grocery Store

It seems counterintuitive, but many families live in a desert in the middle of the city. While some cities are located in the arid, hot variety of desert, there are also food deserts in many major American cities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as, “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” While there are often many bodegas, convenience stores, and fast food places in these areas, they area devoid of grocery stores and farmer’s markets, making it nearly impossible for their residents to access fresh food.

Living in a food desert and relying upon convenience foods for sustenance increases the risk of obesity and obesity related health problems. It is more costly, both due to the actual cost of food, and the cost of the associated health problems. Additionally, food deserts disproportionally effect minority and low-income families; 8% of African-American families live within a mile of a grocery store, compared to 31% of white families. Overall, 23.5 million people live in areas over one mile from a grocery store.

However, in spite of the disheartening statistics, there are creative solutions in many areas. One solution, in Chester, PA, is a non-profit grocery store. In addition to their already low prices, Fare & Square provides SNAP users with a discount, so that their food budget can stretch further.

While the solutions to food deserts seems fairly simple and obvious, build more grocery stores and/or encourage more farmers’ markets in low-income areas, the reality it is more complex. In the past several years, many new or expanded grocery stores have been built, and the federal government has allocated funds to ameliorate food deserts. However, in some areas, these expanded markets have not had the effect that many were hoping.

According to Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, for many people, shopping in a grocery store and preparing healthy food is not part of their routine. Perhaps they do not know what kinds of food to buy or how to make them, or perhaps despite the new, bigger stores, financially, fresh food continues to be out of reach.

As for Mr. Cummins’ observation that some people may not know how to prepare fresh foods, there are several programs which teach healthy and budget friendly cooking to low-income individuals and families. Cooking Matters, a project of Share Our Strength, provides hands on cooking classes and nutritional support to individuals and families who are facing food insecurity. During their six-week courses, participants learn everything from knife skills to budgeting techniques to reading ingredient labels.

Food deserts continue to pose a major problem to low-income families. For some, simply providing a store is not enough; programs are needed to support families in all aspects of healthy eating, including preparation, storage, and shopping. Hopefully, there will be more creative solutions to food deserts to help all families enjoy fresh and healthy foods in their diet.

Urban Planning Solutions for Food Deserts

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Grocery options are limited on the far South Side. (Image: Zol87 CC by/nc)

What is a ‘Food Desert’?

A generally accepted definition of a food desert is: an area where low-income people have restricted access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other nutritious food within a convenient traveling distance. When I think of food deserts, I also jump to include areas where culturally diverse foods are not available for those who would eat them. If there’s a large Chinese migrant population in a city and there are no Asian supermarkets- that seems to be a problem.

Areas that have restricted access to healthy food tend to have a higher change of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and other malnutrition-related diseases. Studies have also shown that children who eat a healthy diet have better performance in academic and social endeavors.

Opportunities for Change

This is an area of interesting debate. Many cities, Detroit for example, have rushed to small-scale urban agriculture and farmer’s markets to combat the ridiculous gaps in supermarket locations. Some claim that this is the best solution. Small scale, locally owned and operated, businesses may offer economical boosts outside of healthy living.

Others do not agree. Some recent studies have shown that Big Box stores like Walmart solve the food desert issue because people actually use those models of food distribution. It’s great to have a dozen farmer’s markets in the area, but if no one goes to them then the food still isn’t accessible.

Urban Planning Endeavors

The laws and principals that govern the way a city is constructed have a huge impact on where commercial and residential venues are located.

There are also often laws that govern the sale of alcohol and other non-desirable items within so many feet of schools and churches. These restrictions sometimes make it difficult to encourage or allow grocery stores to come into an area. A recent article on the city of Houston showed that simple changes in the city’s alcohol sale laws will allow for grocery stores to move in, while keeping bars and convenience stores out.

Transportation is a huge barrier to accessing healthy food. It’s built into the general understanding of what qualifies as a food desert. If you live 2 miles from the closest grocery store in a city that has poor public transportation and you have no other access to a vehicle- how are you going to get your food items home? Transportation infrastructure that supports people moving from densely populated, low-income areas to retail locations that offer healthy options have had success across the country. The CDC has a nice list of some examples.

Sometimes, local government does decide to step-in and offer incentives for retailers providing healthy foods to come into an area plagued by convenience stores and fast food chains. In LA, a measure was passed that placed a moratorium on new fast food restaurants. It successfully led to the opening of a new grocery store in the area.

Revitalizing blighted lands (abandoned buildings and lots, etc.)- again in LA and in Michigan- has had some success in turning these locations into thriving community gardens.  A Michigan Farm Bill (2013) exempts cities with populations over 200,000 (Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, etc.) from the previous restrictions on agriculture in city limits. This now legalizes the 355+ community gardens and farmer’s markets in Detroit alone and allows for regulations regarding noise complaints and other farm-related things.

Many cities across the country have taken some steps to improve food security in their most needy communities. To locate food deserts in your area, check out this map from the US government.

Keep in mind- this map may consider convenience stores as ‘grocery retailers’ and might not wholly reflect the need of the area.

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