‘Food Swamp' vs. ‘Food Desert': What's the Difference?

When it comes to access to healthy, affordable food — or lack thereof— food deserts have dominated the discussion. But there’s another phenomenon that can also affect communities: food swamps.

If you drive down Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, you’ll notice a car dealership, a music school, a Taco Bell, a McDonald’s, a gas station, a Jack in the Box, and a Popeyes.

That’s what Dr. Deborah Cohen, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente who lives in Los Angeles, would call a “food swamp.”

“We live in environments where getting nutrient poor foods is very, very convenient and easy and really pushed on us,” Cohen said.

What Is a Food Swamp?

A food swamp is an area with an “over-allocation” of unhealthy food, according to the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. A food swamp can manifest itself as a neighborhood with a lot of gas stations, liquor stores, corner stores, and fast food restaurants but little to no grocery stores where people can access affordable, nutritious food.

A survey of sixth and seventh-grade girls in Baltimore found that the participants who lived in a food swamp consumed more snacks and desserts than those not living in food swamps.

“There's so much junk food,” Cohen said, referring to the United States. “Sodas, chips, cakes, cookies, candy. That's a food swamp, where you have an overabundance of low nutrient unhealthy foods.”

What Is a Food Desert?

By contrast, a food desert is an area with few or no affordable healthy food options, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Whereas food swamps can have grocery stores filled with healthy food options, food deserts usually don’t even have that.

In a 2017 report, the USDA estimated about 19 million Americans lived in a food desert. In these areas, at least 20 percent of people live at or below the poverty rate and one in three residents live more than one mile from the nearest grocery store in urban areas.

A 2014 study by Johns Hopkins found food deserts disproportionately affect Black communities. In urban communities with majority-Black populations, there were fewer supermarkets on average. Predominantly white communities in urban areas had the most.

Why Are Food Swamps and Food Deserts Dangerous?

A lack of access to healthy, affordable food can have detrimental consequences. 

Food deserts have been linked to higher rates of obesity. Being overweight or obese has long been linked to greater risk for chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. But Dr. Cohen, says food deserts aren’t the biggest problem.

“The problem is food swamps,” said Cohen. “When it comes to food deserts, I feel like that's not the appropriate way to define the problem because only five percent of the American population lives in what's been called a food desert, and 73 percent now are overweight or obese,” says Cohen.

A study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that food swamps are better predictors of obesity rates than food deserts. For example, an area’s concentration of unhealthy food options is a better predictor of obesity rates than another area’s lack of grocery stores. 

What Can We Do to Minimize Food Deserts and Swamps?

There’s not much the average person can do to improve their own access to food. Food deserts and swamps are systemic issues that require systemic solutions.

Things like improving public transportation from food swamps to grocery stores and incentivizing grocery stores to open locations in food deserts can help, according to experts.

Some communities, like East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, tried encouraging corner and liquor stores to add healthier food, but that didn’t impact what people chose to buy.

Cohen has other ideas. The National Institutes of Health recently awarded her a grant to develop what are called “food prescriptions.”

“We put the groceries together and deliver them to households where people are interested in eating healthy and controlling their weight,” Cohen said. “So we're testing that out now, but if it does turn out to work, it could be a solution [where] we could have a service that you just sign up and you'll get healthy, affordable food.”

Outside of that, Cohen believes education alone could go a long way, including education about specific subject: portions.

“The main problem is people are being served too much,” Cohen said.

When it comes to portions, “we don't have any standards in this country,” Cohen said. “One of the projects I'm working on is to develop standardized portions. So when people go to a restaurant, they can order whatever they want, but then be served the appropriate amount.”

Cohen wants people to remember one thing.

“I just want them to feel like it is not their fault entirely,” Cohen said. “They are being victimized by the food environment and the lack of state. And so people can be helped by changing the conditions in which we live. This is really the public health mission, to create conditions in which people can be healthy.

This story is part of Connect the Dots, our series that shows how different aspects of our lives are connected to each other. Watch the video above to see what ties food deserts, concerts and lightbulbs together.