Despite being a global superpower, the United States has a large problem with food insecurity. Approximately 1 in 6 people in America face hunger, and this is an issue that exists in every county across the country. In 2013, roughly 17.5 million households were food insecure with more and more people relying on food banks and pantries to meet one of their most basic needs, food. The USDA defines food insecurity as the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members. Food insecurity, however, is not a one size fits all issue and it looks different depending on the social and physical environment in which one lives. Many people are familiar with the term “food desert” as a descriptor of neighborhoods struggling with food insecurity. A newer term in public health discourse is “food swamp,” which refers to neighborhoods saturated with fast food chains, corner stores, and other unhealthy food providers. Essentially, a food swamp differs from a food dessert in its level of food insecurity. The USDA defines food deserts as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” Often the marker of a food desert is if the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away, making it difficult for residents to access food generally. Although food deserts are an issue that disproportionately affect impoverished neighborhoods in both urban and rural communities, income is not the only barrier to accessing health foods. Kelly Bower, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University, discovered that black and Hispanic neighborhoods have fewer large supermarkets and more small grocery stores than their white counterparts when comparing communities with similar poverty rates.

A map of food deserts in the United States

It is not surprising that black and brown communities are disproportionately located in food deserts, given the history of racism and discrimination that has existed within America and is built into the cultural fabric of this country. The abundance of black and brown people living in food deserts has historical roots that can explain the modern-day disparities in chronic disease rates among black and Hispanic populations, compared to their white counterparts. In a previous post on transportation inequities, I discussed the rise of suburbia that took place in the United States in the 1950s, which included specific policies and practices barring people of color from living in suburban areas because it was believed that their presence would lower the value of properties there. Banks refused to loan money to people living in the inner city, for example, which consisted mostly of people of color.

It is not surprising that black and brown communities are disproportionately located in food deserts, given the history of racism and discrimination that has existed within America and is built into the cultural fabric of this country.​

Another component we must consider when discussing space, place, and food insecurity is the type and quality of food to which people have access. A study conducted by Helen Lee with the Public Policy Institute of California found that the distance to the nearest grocery store is not correlated with a region’s childhood obesity rate.[1] This study suggests that it is not only the lack of food in a neighborhood that can serve as a pathway for childhood obesity, but also the types of food to which people have access.

A man standing with his back towards the camera in a food aisle
A man in a corner shop in Boston, Massachusetts. Source: Flickr.

In addition to having a minimal number of grocery stores, food swamps are crowded with unhealthy options like corner stores and fast-food chains. We can see the difference between food deserts and food swamps in the differences implied by the literal meanings of the terms and the metaphors they employ. A desert is a biome in which a limited number of plants and animals are able live because of the constrained presence of water, which speaks to a limited presence of food in a community generally. A swamp is an ecosystem that has more plants present, but those plants are of a lower quality because of the harsh environment. The swamp metaphor speaks to the abundance of low-quality, unhealthy food options in specific communities. In food swamps, for example, there are generally four or more unhealthy retailers to every healthy retailer. The food options in these areas influence health behavior among residents, as many develop habits surrounding fast food and junk food consumption. Children who live in food swamps may even develop aversions to fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food options. One study analyzing the role of food swamps on regional obesity rates found that food swamps had a positive, statistically significant effect on adult obesity rates even after controlling for food desert effects.[2] Current and future research on food swamps may have large implications for health policy efforts in terms of addressing health inequities, which is a pressing issue affecting so many people in the United States.

A pathway in a green garden with a wooden sign post that says "Seeing, Touching, Tasting, and Listening" on five different boards
The Ross-on-Wye Community Garden for touching, smelling, etc. Photo by Jonathan Billinger©

I had the opportunity to have a phone interview with Dr. Hilary King, an applied anthropologist and sustainable food advocate at Emory University. She highlighted some of the work being done in Atlanta to combat food deserts and food swamps in addition to some of the challenges. In describing the issue of access to fresh fruits and vegetables she says, “one piece is the time piece.” She further explained: “It takes time to process all the unprocessed foods and cook them.” Dr. King informed me that studies at the Fresh MARTA Markets, farm stands set up at five different MARTA stops to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, show that people do not want or do not know what to do with unprocessed vegetables. The presence of corner stores and fast food chains in many communities has heavily influenced people’s behavior, which means that more behavioral interventions may be necessary. A great example of a behavioral intervention is the FoodCorps which works in Atlanta and other cities to educate children about healthy eating and improve school lunch programs. Interventions such as those provided by FoodCorps are essential to moving the needle on food insecurity issues that affect so many communities in the United States.


  1. Lee, H. (2012). The role of local food availability in explaining obesity risk among young school-aged children. Social Science & Medicine, 74(8), 1193-1203. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.12.036
  2. Cooksey-Stowers, K., Schwartz, M., & Brownell, K. (2017). Food Swamps Predict Obesity Rates Better Than Food Deserts in the United States. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(11), 1366. doi:10.3390/ijerph14111366

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