Food desert or food swamp? Depends on what you call “food”

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October 8, 2012 by lschoenfeld

While qualifying an area as a “food desert” may be misleading (see Esther’s post about our very own UNC campus being a “certified” food desert), there is a significant amount of food insecurity in our country that must be addressed in ways beyond simply providing emergency food assistance. I had first-hand experience witnessing the astonishing level of food insecurity that exists in the Triangle area this summer while working at the InterFaith Food Shuttle. The IFFS is doing a great job trying to make sustainable changes to food access in the greater Raleigh area by addressing food production and healthy food availability by teaching low-income communities how to produce and prepare healthier food. Programs like this are a great step towards reducing disparities in healthy food access and are making a difference in many people’s lives in our region.

However, for all the positive changes happening from programs like those provided by the IFFS, the problem of nutrition and obesity in America goes well beyond whether food access and whether or not a person lives in a food desert or food swamp. The major issue at hand is the type of food available to and preferred by most people in this country, and the price people are willing (or able) to pay for what they eat.

Taste and cost are the primary drivers behind food purchasing in the United States, and Americans spend the least amount of disposable income on food compared to any other country. As reported by professor Mark Perry, “the 5.5% of disposable income that Americans spend on food at home is less than half the amount of income spent by Germans (11.4%), the French (13.6%), the Italians (14.4%), and less than one-third the amount of income spent by consumers in South Africa (20.1%), Mexico (24.1%), and Turkey (24.5%).” Americans also only spend about 30 minutes per day preparing foods compared to an average of 52 minutes per day around the world, demonstrating our emphasis on minimal time investment in our food and reliance on convenience.

And food in America is cheap and easy to find, even in food “deserts.” The shelves of most grocery stores are lined with low cost, easy-to-prepare junk food high in calories and low in micronutrients. Fast food restaurants provide dollar menu cheeseburgers and fries cooked in cheap vegetable oil, and these foods are ubiquitous; there are now five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the U.S. Soda and other corn-sweetened beverages are far cheaper compared to most other beverages, and Americans have the highest per-capita soft drink consumption in the world. Whether looking at low-income neighborhoods or high income developments, it’s clear that Americans have plenty of access to affordable, easily prepared food and beverages

But unfortunately, cheap and convenient food comes with an unforeseen cost; our nation’s health. 

A new definition of “food”?

We all know the statistics on obesity: more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and obesity-related conditions are some of the leading causes of preventable death. And the government, through agricultural policy, is making becoming obese even easier. The US PIRG reports that taxpayer agricultural subsidies are increasingly going towards junk food ingredients, mainly commodity crops such as corn and soybeans. These crops are not eaten as-is, but rather are manufactured into ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils that add cheap sweetness and unhealthy fat to the inexpensive processed foods that make up the bulk of grocery store products. Overall, our food policies largely support cheap, poor-quality food that provides sub-par nutrition and encourages overeating even among those who have little money to spend on their food.

So, where should our resources be going to combat the problem? Should we be working towards addressing food deserts, food swamps, or both?

Even in low income areas, people have plenty of access to “food”, but the type of food available and the demand for healthier options is the biggest issue. A recent UNC study found that living near a supermarket had little impact on whether people ate healthy food, but living close to fast-food outlets did. In other words, increasing the availability of healthy food does not generally lead to healthier eating.

So how do we change demand for healthier food? Is it the role of the government to tax junk food and soda, stop subsidizing commodity crops, and limit choices in SNAP food purchases? And where does personal responsibility come into play? Sure, the higher cost of healthy food can be prohibitive to lower income families, and I don’t blame them for choosing the cheapest food available. But maybe if as a nation we began prioritizing our families’ food budget over big-screen TVs and McDonald’s happy meals and didn’t equate caring about food quality with snobbish “elitism”, then we could reach a tipping point where eating healthily was seen as a normal part of life.

One day I hope this is what Americans call “grocery shopping.”

Yes, food deserts and food swamps are a major problem for many low-income families. But these food access disparities are a symptom of a much more insidious issue facing nutrition and health in our country; the prioritization of price, convenience, and taste over quality, nutrition, and environmental sustainability of our food.

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5 thoughts on “Food desert or food swamp? Depends on what you call “food”

  1. I agree that a societal shift is important, and some folks will argue that we are beginning the baby steps towards that, but it is not clear how long this road will be and what the health damage (which appears to be disproportionately borne by some) will be…
    In many ways, the success of the industrial complex in the US is a double-edge sword — it provided the ability to feed the masses, but at the same time, pushed down the price of food for decades… is it time we paid the price??

  2. Esther says:

    Interesting comments on food elitism. I think that may be a part of the problem that is not adequately addressed by nutrition education programs. Food choices can be, for good and for bad, a deeply emotional and cultural issue. Yet it seems nutrition education programs seem often to be geared mainly towards nutrition as a health issue—which is understandable, but may not have much impact. After all, I think most of the American public already knows that large quantities of sweetened, carbonated beverages are not particularly healthy. They know that French fries and pizza do not constitute a well-balanced diet. Of course, much nutrition education also provides skills for making nutritious choices and preparing healthy foods and these are important. Still, as you say, much of the problem is priorities: cheap, tasty and bad for you over expensive and time consuming and good-for-you. (I’m not saying healthy food can’t be inexpensive and delicious, but it often does require either a few more minutes to prepare from raw ingredients or a higher cost for ready-made items; this is particularly true for those who may not have experience and skill in food preparation.) I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on how we as nutrition professionals and individuals who care deeply about public health can help instigate the re-prioritization of American food culture.

    • Esther says:

      I was reminded of the topic of food elitism (and anti-elitism) when I ran across the following Fb post by a teacher I know in a rural Southern school district: “I declined to divulge my political party, so my students determined I must be a democrat. I then refused to let them classify the current president as a terrorist based solely on his middle name–that cemented it. But then I admitted that I didn’t eat a lot of fried food, so Michelle’s healthy food didn’t bother me, and they decided I’m just plain not American–and I can’t deny it. Apparently, eating healthy is UnAmerican.” It’s sad to see healthy food get caught so badly in the crossfire of political ideology that ‘healthy’ gets categorized as ‘unpatriotic.’

  3. afrazzini says:

    Laura, you’ve made some wonderful observations. Many communities have been food deserts (or food swamps) for decades, with the result that several generations of people living in such areas have become accustomed to the high -sugar, -fat, and -salt foods that are most readily available. Increased access of healthy food does not always translate to increased intake because some people never developed a liking for healthier foods. Unhealthy foods are often addictive – how can we expect those who never developed a taste for healthier foods to resist unhealthy foods? As you’ve mentioned, we can make changes in pricing and availability to affect demand – but I’d also like to point out that we could work to change personal preference.

    What could we do to affect personal preference? Education is important, but I think marketing may have an even greater impact. That’s why I like labeling systems that combine education (providing information on nutrient content) with marketing (highlighting certain foods as better choices, according to food composition). Of course, marketing campaigns should do a lot more than just label products, but that’s one example. Preference is also cultural; in order to recruit people towards a “culture of healthy food,” we should market that culture as welcoming, not elitist.

    Dietitians can play an important role in making the “culture of healthy food” more welcoming to newcomers: that is, we can show that we are willing to make compromises and meet people where they are. We can’t insist that people make a direct transition from eating Walmart frozen pizzas to a diet that is healthy AND local AND organic, especially when seeking to reach low-income populations. (While those goals may be complimentary in certain situations, that isn’t always the case.) Instead, we have to celebrate any steps toward health that our clients are willing to make.

    We can’t expect clients to change ALL of their priorities to match ALL of ours. If we want people to sacrifice their other priorities for the sake of health, we have to be willing to do the same.

  4. locklearcr says:

    What an involved topic!

    The issue of convenience is certainly huge. Even as nutrition students, we’ve all been in the situation of choosing a less ideal meal/food/snack because we are tired or in a hurry and can’t justify spending time to cook. This is something that is strongly unique to the American culture. Work and productivity override mental and physical health, as well as sleep. The problem is on a very individual level, but it’s just so widespread at this point it’s happening to everyone.

    It’s almost sickening to see the unnecessary abundance of convenient foods everywhere we go, and the bombardment of advertising for products we shouldn’t be eating on a daily basis.

    Talking with family and friends, there is a GIGANTIC disconnect between what we eat and health issues that can arise.Using nutrition as a preventive measure is not something that most Americans are aware of. Therefore, people are strongly lacking the motivation to change their behaviors if they, for instance, think that diabetes is inevitable in their family. Sadly, this is not a scenario in which, “if you build it, they will come” applies (for the most part). Maybe we have to make them want it with a little bit of tough love.

    An issue with food labeling is that a lot of the foods we may want people to eat don’t really have labels, like fresh, whole produce. How can we draw their attention to these items along the perimeter of the store and also minimize the hesitation to choose new foods?

    Have we gone so far that people can’t think for themselves? I hope not. Although, I’m not against changing the environment, as you mentioned Laura, with subsidies and taxations on products. If it would catalyze healthier choices then I’m for it.

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