Most of us know about places where there are few grocery stores, or farmers markets or other access to fresh, healthy food. These are usually called food deserts. We know that there are liquor stores or mini-marts or fast food establishments readily accessible in some of these areas. But, did you know this environment has a name, too? Food swamp.
What is a food swamp? Well, it is definitely not the solution to a food desert. Health professionals, and others studying health in low-income communities, were finding that although some areas were not labeled food deserts (because there was access to food) there were still high rates of obesity and disease.
So, the term “food swamp” was coined to explain how the “excess of unhealthy food [is] a more pressing problem, than inadequacies.” And, a bill winding through the California legislature defines one by the other. It says food swamps are subsets of food deserts, and provide an overabundance of high-energy, caloric foods that overwhelm healthy options. A USDA study further defines food swamps.
Some municipalities have provided incentives to supermarkets to locate in these areas. Others have placed moratoriums on new fast food establishments. And we’ve heard some people outright wish for cities to demolish retail outlets that don’t offer healthy alternatives. Each of these methods (especially the last one!) takes a long and arduous route. Meanwhile, people are still shopping in swamps for their food. And a Rand study in South Los Angeles found that taking away the stores wasn’t going to really make a difference, anyway. So, what are some other alternatives? We think the answer isn’t to just get rid of those outlets that contribute to swamps, but to provide better choices in and around those very outlets.
We’ve already talked about mobile fresh food options in other posts, and those, along with community gardens, are some of our favorite options. But we’d like to add cooperation with corner stores and small food marts – making shelf space for fresh foods. That is the aim of groups like the Healthy Corner Stores Network and The Food Trust with its Healthy Corner Store Initiative. In localities where it’s legal, those stores could work with a local farmer, community garden or yardshare community to offer items.
Meanwhile, we’re not waiting for the stores to accept the food. There is interest in getting fresh options, and we need to take advantage it. At our project in South Los Angeles, people come and ask for fruit from the trees. Some get produce from the raised beds, too, if the owner is around and willing. One thing we can do is grow food and share it, a lot of it, creating the proper refuge in the desert: a true oasis.