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.

Who Really Receives Food Stamps?

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As with other groups, there is a stereotype of food stamp, or SNAP benefit, recipients. Many people believe that most food stamp recipients resemble President Ronald Reagan’s infamous “welfare queen”; women of color who would rather collect money from the government than go to work, poor families who have more kids than they can afford, or some combination of the two. However, the actual demographics of SNAP benefit users are quite different from this stereotype.

Perhaps the most important demographical fact about food stamp recipients is that around 40% are white. However, many politicians continue reinforce the idea that welfare programs are used almost exclusively by minority populations. For example, in 2012, former Senator Rick Santorum said, “I don’t want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money, I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”

Data from the USDA released in 2013 showed the breakdown of SNAP recipients: 40.2 percent are white, 25.7 percent are Black, 10.3 percent of recipients are Hispanic, 2.1 percent are Asian, and 1.2 percent of SNAP recipients are Native American. Read more

This kind of rhetoric is problematic for several reasons. First, it perpetuates the incorrect stereotype of minority populations especially with African-American’s being portrayed as the only group on any kind of social benefit programs. Additionally, it explicitly implies that people who receive benefits are doing so to avoid working, and if they were willing to look for and accept work, they would no longer need the benefits. Finally, it perpetuates the negative stigma associated with being on a social assistance program, which could make people less likely to seek assistance if needed.

If food stamp beneficiaries are not able-bodied, black, and unwilling to work, who are they? Around 80% of SNAP benefit users either have children (40%), are disabled (20%), or are over the age of sixty-five (17%). While there are able-bodied, young, single people who receive food stamps, they are by no means the majority. Additionally, many states are in the process of purging the program of these individuals with approximately half a million users set to lose their benefits in the next year. This means that it will be even less common for young, healthy, single individuals to receive SNAP which will overwhelming affect foster children who age of the system with no to low support systems.

Many food stamp users belong to a demographic known as the working poor. These are individuals and families who are working, but they are in jobs that do not offer enough hours or enough money to truly remove them from poverty. Approximately 30% of food stamp recipients are working in some capacity. However, due to their income and/or family size, they still qualify for food stamps and other means-tested programs such as Medicaid.

Unfortunately, despite evidence to the contrary, the negative stereotype of the food stamp user persists. One way to combat negative stereotypes is to speak up about the reality, However, it is understandable that many benefit recipients are hesitant to do so. It is imperative for social workers and other service providers to help combat this stigma by speaking out on behalf of our clients.

More Than 500,000 Childless Adults to Lose SNAP Benefits This Year

Credit: Mohammad Ali Fakheri/Flickr Creative Commons
Credit: Mohammad Ali Fakheri/Flickr Creative Commons

Within the next year, between 500,000 and 1 million childless adults without disabilities will be dropped from their SNAP, or food stamp, benefits. A three-month time limit exists on benefits for this population, which has been in place since the welfare reform legislation in 1996. Currently, childless adults aged 18-49 without disabilities are the only population subject to this time limit.

The reasons that single, childless adults find themselves on food stamps are varied, as is the group itself. Some of these individuals are chronically homeless, stuck deeply in a cycle of poverty that could feel impossible to break. However, many of them are working, but in either low wage or unstable jobs because their income is either quite low or sporadic. It can be difficult to sustain a stable budget, which leads to the need for SNAP and other forms of assistance.

The welfare reform package of 1996 included a work provision that has made it more difficult for many groups to remain on assistance, even if their income has not increased. During the great recession, which started in 2007 and has had lasting impacts on the economy since, many states received a waiver from the federal government that temporarily allowed benefit recipients to remain in the program while the economy stabilized. Now that the economy has improved, these waivers no longer apply.

The overarching goal of the 1996 welfare reform package was to provide incentives and assistance for people to find work. As a result of this, job training programs should be set up in most places, and many benefits can be kept for the duration of an unemployment period, as long as that individual is looking for work, willing to accept any kind of work that comes along, works less than twenty hours a week, or is in a job training program. While these provisions do apply to SNAP benefit recipients, if they cannot find a spot in a job training program or is working twenty one hours a week, they then become ineligible.

This will have hugely detrimental effects on both the individuals who lose their benefits and their wider community. Being subjected to deeper poverty and food insecurity will almost certainly effect the mental health of these individuals. Being anxious and/or depressed can make it more difficult to find and keep employment, and being unemployed can lead to feelings of anxiety and/or depression, creating a cycle that may feel impossible to break. Additionally, being hungry can make it more difficult to concentrate and impacts memory and overall cognitive functioning, all things that can make finding and keeping work more difficult.

As is often the case in politics, the three-month limit on food stamps for adults without children was not meant to cause long term, systemic harm. In theory, when the economy is strong, people will be able to find jobs that lift and keep them out of poverty and hunger. However, when these jobs are unstable, low-paying, or just plain unavailable, the ruling causes great harm to this population.

When Basic Living is Considered a Utopia for the Poor

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With our fast paced lives in a technological age of instant gratification and easy distraction, it’s no wonder news channels are beginning to advertise “distractify” sections on their web pages. It’s not difficult to see how quiet unassuming people may get pushed aside, and their needs relegated to the back burner. We assume that they’ll get social security which will provide some basic living. After all, we are told that all Americans can get social security once they retire. Right?

But, retiring means that you have worked, and social security is based on earnings over your lifetime. For homemakers, this doesn’t help much. We assume that they’ll receive Medicare, and yes we might even hear about the problems and costs associated with what Medicare doesn’t cover. We might even assume that the elderly will get food stamps without realizing just how meager food stamp grants really are. In an age of cuts to social programs, not only are all of these so-called entitlements at risk, programs such as food banks, meals on wheels, and utility assistance are also at risks which leads me to tell you about Mrs. Jones.

Mrs. Jones* is a vibrant and lovely elderly woman, free with stories of years gone by and quick with an ear for friends and neighbors. She loves working in her garden and sitting on her porch chatting with passers-by. Many in her community in Atlanta look forward to the spritely older woman and her tales. Many more loved her homespun wisdom and down home recipes, both of which she’s quick to share.

So, it was with great shock and profound sadness that the community witnessed its first day without the fixture that was Mrs. Jones and the loss was palpable. The shock and sadness only increased as the story behind Mrs. Jones’ absence spread.

In all the time she was cornerstone of the community, the very bedrock that most communities seek to cultivate, no one guessed she might have a secret. Mrs. Jones was used to being relied upon in her community and never thought to ask for anything in return. While her neighbors were friendly, caring, and even supportive of her, no one thought to inquire into how this lovely elderly woman, a widow who’d largely been a homemaker, was fairing. Sadly though, Mrs. Jones is one of countless citizens in an unenviable position. She is one of the 3.4 million citizens aged 65 and over in our country who live in poverty making her part of an extremely vulnerable population and one that is often forgotten in our society.

As a widow she did qualify for survivor’s benefits, but as someone who was largely a homemaker, her social security was meager at best. She did happen to qualify for Medicare, but was judged to be over the resource limit for food stamps. Living alone without dependent children reduced her benefits limit to the point that she was deemed to make too much. In short, after a lifetime of raising children, keeping house, and being a good and supportive wife to her husband all things lauded as family values to be protected, the system failed Mrs. Jones.

On the night where we pick up Mrs. Jones’ story, the night before her community witnessed the absence of its cornerstone, Mrs. Jones dialed 911 in a panic. She was having incapacitating abdominal cramps coupled with vomiting. When she arrived at the emergency room she was quickly diagnosed with a bowel obstruction and raced into emergency surgery. Afterward she was admitted to the ICU to recover from surgery and to stabilize her condition. A few days after she was admitted, a concerned friend came to visit and that’s when the true tragedy of Mrs. Jones case was revealed.

Her neighbor, perhaps one of her closest friends, knew that Mrs. Jones had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and that the treatment course was not covered by her insurance. This is not uncommon among the elderly who frequently have too many medical bills and not enough money or insurance. Many Americans think that supplemental insurance like Medicare part D picks up the rest, but the truth is it doesn’t cover everything and creates what some call the Medicare donut. In this position, Mrs. Jones was left to decide between medication and other necessities like food, which also is not uncommon among the elderly.

What makes this story less common, but by no means unheard of, is how Mrs. Jones decided to solve the problem. With too many financial needs and too few dollars at her command, Mrs. Jones decided that she would have to resort to eating dog food to afford her medications. That’s right, as she was trading recipes with her neighbors, offering an ear to all and being the foundation of her community, Mrs. Jones had resorted to eating dog food.

Mrs. Jones had been failed by the very society of whom she was a bedrock. Even more tragically, she is now saddled with even more medical debt which lead to her illness in the first place. Only time will tell how Mrs. Jones’ story will end. With her grown children having moved away and her husband  now deceased, it is very likely her community will forever lose its cornerstone. The debt she’s incurred will drive her to even more austere measures and ultimately lead to her being placed in assisted living.

Mrs. Jones’ story and the stories of millions like her doesn’t have to end this way. It doesn’t have to be a story of poverty, increased health care costs, and increased demand for limited assisted living spaces. The only solution that eliminates poverty and corrects societal tragedies like Mrs. Jones story is a universal basic income.

Had Mrs. Jones lived in a country that provided a guaranteed basic income for its citizens, Mrs. Jones would not live in poverty. She’d receive a stipend that guaranties her a comfortable existence where she could afford food and adequate health insurance. Insurance where her medication is covered, thus eliminating the strain of poverty on our health care system.

Clearly our current system, which leaves 3.4 million of our elderly in poverty, estimates as many as 44% of seniors would be living in poverty if it were not for social security. As stated in the findings by Center for American Progress, the system is broken, and it’s time to find a solution. 

Editors Note: *Mrs. Jones and staff at Emory University Hospital spoke to me on condition of anonymity. Mrs. Jones name was changed to protect her privacy.

The Forgotten Poor: More Children Living in Extreme Poverty

The number of children living in extreme poverty—on $2.00 or less per person per day in a household—grew significantly from 1996 until 2011. In 2011, 3.55 million children in 1.65 million households were living in extreme poverty in a given month. Income included TANF and other direct cash assistance programs, cash support from family and friends, and income from odd jobs and other sources.

The good news—if you can call it that—is means-tested benefits such as food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and Section 8 vouchers lifts two-thirds of these households out of extreme poverty, but still leaves 1.17 million children living off the barest subsistence. Research by H. Luke Schaefer, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the department of sociology at John Hopkins University, documents the growing number of children being left behind.

helpUsing data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), they were able to determine how many children and families had slipped into extreme poverty since the beginning of welfare reform. Since welfare reform, the number of adults on TANF has decreased dramatically from 4.6 million at its peak to about one million in 2011.

Welfare reform was hailed as a great success as many of these single mothers were able to move into employment as the economy boomed in the 1990s, yet their research shows that a number of these mothers fell through the cracks. With pre-tax cash alone as the measure, children in extreme poverty grew from 1.4 million children in 636,000 households in 1996 to 3.55 million children in 1.65 million households in 2011.

In 2011, using cash alone as the criteria, 37 percent of households living in extreme poverty were headed by a married couple and 51 percent were headed by single females. Adding in means-tested subsidies, just over half of households in extreme poverty were headed by married couples and less than a third by single females, indicating single mothers were benefiting more from the subsidies. Again, using the cash-only measure, the study found that 47 percent of households living in extreme poverty were headed by non-Hispanic whites, and 46 percent by people of color. Adding the subsidies, the proportion headed by non-Hispanic whites rose to 61 percent. Contrary to popular believe, people living in extreme poverty is not limited to single mothers and people of color.

Living at the official poverty threshold for a family of three would roughly equate to $17 per day per person in a household. People living in “deep” poverty or half of the official poverty line would be subsisting on $8.50 per day. Children and families living in extreme poverty are trying to make it with less than one-fourth of the deep poverty rate. There is a severe price to pay. Life at the bottom of the income ladder is fraught with greater risk of homelessness and housing insecurity, lack of nutritious food and a host of other potential health calamities.

Most of these children have little or no chance of ever making it out of poverty. For children living in the stressful conditions of extreme poverty there is an increase in the probability of being victims of child abuse and neglect, being exposed to domestic violence and other traumatic occurrences, lack of educational stability, living in neighborhoods inundated with drugs, crime, and draconian policing policies that lead to criminal records and spending time behind bars. Not much of a future.

So what do we do about this? How can we begin to lift children of extreme poverty? The Hamilton Project at the prestigious Brookings Institute offers a number of poverty policy prescriptions that include increasing early childhood education, increasing mentoring and other support programs for disadvantaged youth, skills-building for low-income workers, support for the minimum wage and expansion of the EITC, among others.

All are good ideas, but it would take a few generations for any of these policies to have any meaningful impact on extreme poverty. Few policymakers seem to have a notion to address the real problem—growing economic inequality. The economic pie is growing, but every bit of the growth is being swallowed up by a handful of extremely wealthy people while the planet’s population continues to grow.

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