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Food Deserts vs. Swamps: The USDA Weighs In

Why are so many Americans so fat? The conventional wisdom blames a confluence of factors: Unhealthful food is less expensive and more widely available than fresh fruits and vegetables. (Oh, and it sometimes tastes better, too.) The conventional solution: Make healthful food more easily available, especially in low-income areas, and watch the America's extra pounds melt away.

Not so fast, says a report released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A broad review of the literature reveals that there's no significant evidence that increased access to fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk and whole grains actually reduces body mass index (BMI). One study did show that proximity to fast-food restaurants increased BMI, while proximity to a grocery store reduced it. But the total effects only nudged BMI scores up or down less than half a point.

Indeed, record obesity rates might have more to do with the availability of junk food than the difficulty finding fresh, healthful options, the report says. In short: So-called food deserts aren't the issue. It's food swamps, thick with fast-food joints and convenient stores.

The analysis has significant policy implications. It cautions against simply plopping new grocery stores into low-income urban and rural areas, though that might be appropriate in certain places. Instead, it suggests a broad range of policies, from financial incentives to purchase healthful food to education programs. And it makes clear that solutions require a combination of initiatives. There is no silver bullet.

Among the solutions highlighted is the Health Bucks program in New York that offers food-stamp recipients $2 for every $5 they spend at a farmers market. Such programs appear to be gaining momentum. In 2008, 753 farmers markets accepted food stamps (now called SNAP benefits), up from 253 in 2000. I recently wrote a story about the
Wholesome Wave Foundation's efforts
to launch similar programs in Washington, California and New England.

What do you think? Is access to healthful food a key part of solving the obesity crisis? No pun intended: Weigh in.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  June 25, 2009; 3:46 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, USDA, food policy, nutrition  
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Comments

Thank you for introducing a term I hadn't heard before - Food Swamp. What a fantastic way to describe the overwhelming product mix found in today's convenience stores and supermarkets.

It is difficult to imagine our conventional food system changing course regarding new product introductions (tens of thousands per year), adding to the hundreds of thousands of products currently on the market. This makes the challenge of changing diets significant.

Having access to health food is obviously important. But knowing what to do with fresh and minimally processed foods really happens in kitchens and consumers ability to cook.

Figuring out ways for consumers to find these foods AND become comfortable cooking must play a part in navigating today's food swamps and improving our overall health and well-being.

Cheers,

Rob Smart
a.k.a., Jambutter on Twitter
http://everytable.wordpress.com

Posted by: Jambutter | June 25, 2009 8:54 PM | Report abuse

Interestingly, I just read an article in an LA Times blog ("Living near fast food may not make kids gain weight", http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/booster_shots/2009/06/living-near-fast-food-restaurants-may-offer-temptation-but-does-it-actually-cause-people-to-gain-more-weight--maybe-not-ac.html) that cites an article that complicates the notion that living near fast food restaurants can lead to higher weight and living near supermarkets can lead to healthier weight. It basically says that this conventional wisdom is not true.

I think the bottom line is as you write in your article - there is no silver bullet.

Posted by: kumarc | June 25, 2009 11:18 PM | Report abuse

Hi guys,
Thanks for reading. Good points both. This is the problem with national policy making. We want hard evidence about what works before we spend money. And, here I go with my puns again, one size doesn't fit all.

I do think that the term food swamp is an interesting one. I wonder if they invented it. Or who did...

Posted by: Jane Black | June 26, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

This is a matter of economics and the lack of skills and time associated with economic class. Even with a grocery store right in one's neighborhood, it's cheaper and faster to fill one's belly with fast food. If you're working two jobs just to make ends meet, you probably don't have the time or energy to put together a meal from scratch.

Let's stop subsidizing the commodity crops that make fast food cheap and start subsidizing farmers who grow fruits and vegetables and raise animals on pasture. Let's teach home economics in schools again (and woodshop, too).

Posted by: LostArtsKitchen | June 26, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

This research fits with what we see in schools: that just offering healthy options isn’t enough. When kids have access to a salad bar, for example, they may or may not give it a try, much less incorporate it into their regular diet. But when students have access to a healthier choices and have food education – giving them knowledge of how food is grown and what impact it has on their mind and body – they tend to embrace the healthy choices. We also see that little things can also make or break the success of a healthy food program in schools, things such as whether fruit is cut into small pieces that are easy for little hands to grasp and eat. I can imagine that little details make a big difference in neighborhoods as well – whether a farmers’ market has convenient hours, for example. To me, this research emphasizes the importance of providing education about food and healthy lifestyles – both in schools and in our communities.

Thanks,
Rochelle
Executive Director, Healthy Schools Campaign
www.healthyschoolscampaign.org

Posted by: rochelle3 | June 26, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Rochelle of Healthy Schools Campaign makes the point brilliantly. And for those who are interested, check out their Web site. They do great work.

Posted by: Jane Black | June 26, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

This is a matter of economics and the lack of skills and time associated with economic class. Even with a grocery store right in one's neighborhood, it's cheaper and faster to fill one's belly with fast food. If you're working two jobs just to make ends meet, you probably don't have the time or energy to put together a meal (or 3) from scratch.

Let's stop subsidizing the commodity crops that make fast food cheap and start subsidizing farmers who grow fruits and vegetables and raise animals on pasture. Let's teach home economics in schools again (and woodshop, too).

Posted by: LostArtsKitchen | June 26, 2009 7:09 PM | Report abuse

Some good points here and I fully agree with Rochelle. Home Economics need to be reinstated into our schools, starting in the lower grades so that healthy choices start early and become healthy habits.

Also, now that soda is out of most schools (at least during school hours)let's get the candy out--it is handed out way too often for rewards!!

Portion control is a huge issue, too. We have been living in a super-sized world for way too long. I would love to see eating establishments offer 2 portion sizes (at least of some of the entrees).

Posted by: gone2beach | June 27, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

It's not enough to offer better foods.
Healthier foods need to be made more convenient to fit today's lifestyles, like baby carrots. Yes, baby carrots are a travesty of nature, but they're better for you than a bag of chips.
It all boils down to education, and making eating right FUN, right from birth. Not easy to do, unless you can make a smiley face out of broccoli every night, but we try. (www.thefoodscribe.com)

Posted by: afulton | July 1, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

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