Starving in food deserts, drowning in food swamps? Understanding the labels and their link to obesity6
October 8, 2012 by eldavies3
“Food desert” is quite the buzzword these days not only in public health vernacular but also in mainstream media. As public health nutrition students, we’ve heard the term countless times and have discussed and presented on them in a wide variety of classes. It’s true that standard definitions are lacking; the CDC defines food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet,” whereas Michelle Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative working group describes them as “low-income census tract[s] where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store” (1, 2). The gist, however, is the same: a food desert is a geographical region in which access to healthy foods is limited. The lack of healthy options is often extrapolated to the nation’s obesity epidemic: according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, “limited access to nutritious food… may be linked to poor diets and, ultimately, diet-related diseases” (3).
First Lady Michelle Obama has helped increase awareness of these food deserts through her Let’s Move! campaign to address childhood obesity. In a 2011 speech, Ms. Obama described the difficulties of lack of access, stating, “If people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid’s lunch, they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab in order to do it” (4). The USDA is similarly enthusiastic about food deserts. You can visit their Economic Research Service’s website to view a United States map showing census tracts that are considered to be food deserts:
“Food swamps” are an alternative way to think about the variety of choices available in a given geographic region. Whereas food deserts are lacking in healthy options, food swamps have an abundance of unhealthy options. According to Roland Sturm, author of a recent study on the food environment and adolescent obesity, food swamps are urban environments in which “you can get basically any type of food” (4). Although food swamps do not lack grocery stores or supermarkets, they have a multitude of fast food restaurants and convenience stores. The CDC asserts that even after healthy food products are made available in food deserts, many consumers continue to purchase unhealthy foods “based on personal preferences” (1). This pattern may hold true in food swamps as well, with preferences for abundant unhealthy options rather than healthy ones.
Whether we think in terms of food deserts or food swamps to address the issue of obesity through promoting healthy food choices, finding solutions will be a challenge. However, one option may be to capitalize on use of food assistance programs, which could help address both swamps and deserts. According to a recent USDA report, one in four Americans utilizes a food assistance program (5). Furthermore, expenditures and participation in many of these programs is increasing. In particular, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 increased benefits and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Nord). Clearly, more Americans than ever can be reached through these programs. Using funding and existing infrastructure to not only provide nutrition education but also to incentivize healthier choices may allow greater access to healthier foods and shift preferences toward healthier options.
1. “A Look Inside Food Deserts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 Sept. 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. <http://www.cdc.gov/features/fooddeserts/>.
- 2. “USDA ERS Food Desert Locator.” USDA Economic Research Service. USDA, 12 Aug. 2012. Web. 05 Oct. 2012. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-desert-locator/about-the-locator.aspx>.3. Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences. Rep. USDA Economic Research Service, June 2009. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/242654/ap036_reportsummary_1_.pdf>.4. Kolata, Gina. “Food Deserts and Obesity Role Challenged.” The New York Times. N.p., 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/18/health/research/pairing-of-food-deserts-and-obesity-challenged-in-studies.html>.
5. Food Assistance Landscape FY 2011 Annual Report. Rep. N.p.: USDA Economic Research Service, 2012. Print.
6. Nord, Mark. “Food Security of SNAP Recipients Improved Following the 2009 Stimulus Package.” Amber Waves. USDA Economic Research Service, n.d. Web.