Millions of Americans lack access to healthy food. Can one of the wealthiest nations in the world do better? Rigid definitions of healthy foods, meals, and diets obscure the problem. Differences in cultural heritage between dietary advisors and their clients block solutions. Affordability of healthy food items creates a gulf between haves and have nots. Swamps and deserts are only two terms that designate areas with limited access to healthy food. Should we focus on draining the swamps or providing oases in the deserts?
A food swamp is “an urban environment where there is a lot of food for sale that is not nutritious, or worse, and therefore is seen to be a threat to human health.” Imagine a foodscape of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, dollar stores. Each business reaches into the pockets of a captive audience to sell them cheap, junk foods.
A food desert is an area where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food. The Economic Research Service (ERS) of the USDA is at the forefront of studying food deserts. Deserts occur in both rural and urban areas. ERS classifies these deserts as more than a mile away from a supermarket in urban areas. The distance in rural environments is more than ten miles away.
Are food swamps and deserts opposite sides of the same coin? I contend that the terms are descriptions of the same locations. I prefer desert to swamp. It is easier to place a supermarket as an oasis in a food desert than to clear out purveyors of unhealthy foods in a swamp. A supermarket provides access to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole meats. Yes, it comes with processed and ultra-processed products in the middle aisles. But it is access to fresh foods that is the goal of establishing supermarket oases. Does draining the swamp provide access to healthy food? Or does it just deny access to affordable food?
There is at least one other person who prefers the desert analogy to the swamp one for a different reason. Sarah Elton deplores using ‘swamp’ to describe these blighted areas. These urban areas give swamps a bad name. Swamps are “forested wetlands” that nourish and sustain the environment. Food swamps produce an environment that neither nourishes nor sustains health.
Introduction of supermarkets eliminates food deserts. Or do they? I keep coming back to the unSafeway described by Ashante Reese in Black Food Geographies. Newman and Jung (1) describe problems with large grocery stores in inner-city Detroit. These authors don’t buy the simple solution to eliminate food deserts provided by ERS. Successful introduction of a quality supermarket into a food desert or swamp is difficult. It involves a delicate dance between store management and its customers. Has management stocked the appropriate fresh foods to appeal to the customer? Are the customers willing to buy the fresh foods stocked by the supermarket? Does the store understand the cultural environment of its customers? Is the supermarket flexible enough to change its stock to meet wants and needs of its customers? Are the produce and meat managers competent enough to rotate stock? Do they construct attractive displays? Are they able to lower food waste?
Food justice advocates propose healthy alternatives to supermarkets. Such alternatives include farmers markets, urban gardens, and corner stores. It is not clear whether the alternatives can meet the needs of large urban populations. Corner stores and dollar stores may not have the necessary equipment to store and sell fresh fruits and vegetables.
Draining a food swamp is more difficult than putting an oasis in a desert. Pursued with righteous indignation, draining the swamp is a negative act. It seeks to destroy rather than to build. It presumes that the community is weak and wiser people from the outside should manage it. The community must have the will to not only drain the swamp but also to build an oasis. As the desert blooms, swampy objects will disappear from lack of demand. New, shiny objects like farmers markets and urban gardens attract the community. We measure success by the numbers that embrace the change and how long these changes last. The transformation should also not deviate from the original goal to provide healthy, affordable food. Whether draining the swamp or introducing the oases occurs first. the community needs to support the effort.
What is the goal? Providing access to healthy food or decreasing availability of unhealthy food? Changing a foodscape is not easy. The worst thing about food swamps and deserts is that families who desire healthy foods can’t buy them. There is no place within walking or driving distance to go buy these foods. Or even if there are such places, the healthy food is not affordable. A successful supermarket understands the culture and needs of its customers. An unsuccessful one will fail to provide access to healthy, affordable food. Supermarkets also come with items considered not so healthy. Is the goal to provide access and affordability or to remove temptation?
What economic constraints affect food deserts and swamps? In Pressure Cooker, three sociologists take us into homes of American families struggling to survive. These families face inadequate incomes from jobs with unpredictable work schedules. Transportation to and from work is not reliable. Home cooking is not always an option. The money available is not enough to buy the healthiest food for sale even with food stamps. Children resist meals prepared at home, demanding foods like those their friends eat. For some, minimally processed foods fit both economic and nutritional realities.
Bottom line. Life is tough in food swamps and deserts. Food justice is not achieved overnight. Long-term planning must take into consideration the needs and culture of the community. Providing access to healthy food that is affordable becomes the primary goal. A supermarket becomes an oasis in a desert only if it meets community needs. Draining a swamp is a more difficult task and may not achieve the primary goal. No matter how noble the goal, plans without community buy-in are doomed to failure.
Next week: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat
(1) Newman, J. and Jung, Y., 2020. Good food in a racist system. In Black Food Matters (Reese and Garth, eds.) pp. 131-157.