It’s Not Food Deserts, It’s Food Swamps!
Does how close you live to a grocery store influence your diet? Advocates claim that it does, but research has failed to establish a connection. Nor does the research show a correlation between an area’s obesity rate and access to healthy foods. A new study suggests the real problem is not lack of access to healthy food, but rather an abundance of access to unhealthy food options, like corner markets and fast food.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity have a name for places where unhealthy food is especially easy to find. They call such areas “food swamps,” and they define them as “areas with a high-density of establishments selling high-calorie fast food and junk food, relative to healthier food options.” The abstract from a recent Rudd Center study suggests there are policy implications:
Based on these findings, local government policies such as zoning laws simultaneously restricting access to unhealthy food outlets and incentivizing healthy food retailers to locate in underserved neighborhoods warrant consideration as strategies to increase health equity.
Just as with food deserts, the narrative surrounding food swamps sounds reasonable: If unhealthy food is more convenient and accessible than healthy food, then unhealthy food is what people will eat. But creating policy to address such a situation isn’t simple, nor is it without potential problems. One can imagine municipal leaders rushing off to draft all sorts of new feel-good legislation restricting restaurateurs’ property rights through zoning. The result could be nothing at all, or a raft of unintended consequences.
Ultimately, demand drives markets. Making healthy food more easily available will only help if people want healthy food. That might be why Rollin’ Grocer, whose mission was “to provide affordable, fresh food to customers living in food deserts and underserved neighborhoods through mobile grocery stores,” ceased operation in July 2017. Kansas City is spending upwards of $17 million to subsidize a Sun Fresh grocery store at the Linwood Shopping Center. Also at that center are a thriving Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, Linwood Chinese Express, and Pizza Hut.
If demand for healthy food does not increase, expect the Sun Fresh to face the same fate as its predecessor at that shopping center (it closed in 2007) while the fast-food restaurants nearby continue to flourish. The only thing that will change is a faster depletion of public funds.