The community food environment plays a key role in determining access to healthy food. When evaluating a community food environment, many factors should be considered such as the amount of food retailers, types of food retailers, relative location of food retailers, and transportation options. Food deserts and food swamps are two terms used to describe the layout of food environments and the relationship between healthy and unhealthy food retailers in a community.
According to the USDA, a “food desert” is a community, particularly lower-income neighborhood, where residents have low (or limited) access to affordable, quality, and nutritious food. Nutritious foods are defined as those that follow the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a tool that is designed to encourage the consumption of nutritious foods by balancing calorie intake and by choosing more natural, non-processed foods.
Using the USDA guidelines, the table to the right shows the relationship between distance from a supermarket and food access level in both rural and urban communities.
Low-income and predominantly minority communities are affected the most by food insecurity. One nationwide study found that zip codes comprising low-income households have 25 percent fewer supermarkets than zip codes comprising middle-income households. Additionally, African-American populations have half as much access to chain supermarkets as Caucasian populations when controlling for other factors.
To see where these food deserts are located, visit the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas website, which maps out the locations of food deserts in areas you define from a single city or state to the entire country.
Food Deserts in Delaware
In 2015, the Institute for Public Administration published a policy brief, Access to Healthy Foods in the Built Environment. It states,
Although the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA) reports that the state ranks first in the country in agricultural production value per farm and per acre, Delaware’s communities reflect food access issues similar to the rest of the country. Of the 215 census tracts in Delaware, 142 census tracts (containing 61 percent of the population) lack a grocery store. An additional 56 census tracts (containing approximately 27 percent of the population) have only one grocery store.
A Food Desert-Related GIS map was produced by IPA in June 2015 and provides a geographic overview of Delaware food desert locations by census tracts, based on USDA Food Access Research Atlas data. As noted in the policy brief, food access is not limited only to built environment nuances and geographic factors, as reflected in the USDA’s use of neighborhood and individual factors in determining food access. Additional factors that play a role are
ability to pay for and the affordability of healthy foods; having the necessary skills and equipment to make healthy meals; and having the free time to shop for and prepare healthy meals. To increase healthy eating, it is not only necessary to increase and improve supply, but also to increase demand of healthy foods via promotion and education.
According to Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, “A food swamp is a place where unhealthy foods are more readily available than healthy foods.” Food swamps contain many unhealthy food options at fast food restaurants, corner stores, and food trucks. Each of these establishments sells food high in calories, fat, sugars, and other compounds that should be consumed in more moderate amounts.
While many food deserts contain food swamps due to the lack of healthy food options, food swamps are also present in areas that are not defined as food deserts. Some areas may have access to grocery stores and farmers’ markets, but if these healthy food outlets are significantly outnumbered by stores that sell predominantly unhealthy foods the area is still considered a food swamp. A recent study found that the correlation between food swamps and obesity is stronger than the relationship between food deserts and obesity.
Access to healthy food and nutrition habits are more complicated than the presence or lack of a nearby grocery store. The ratio of healthy and unhealthy food available plays a major role in defining the food environment and shaping dietary behaviors. When unhealthy food retailers, like fast food restaurants and convenience stores that primarily sell unhealthy foods, are more prevalent than healthy retailers, unhealthy foods are more accessible to community members than healthy foods. Likewise, these retailers tend to sell these unhealthy foods at lower prices making them both convenient and affordable.
In summary, to build a food environment that supports good nutrition and equitable access to healthy food, policies and programs should work not only to establish a point of access to healthy food in a community, but also to shift the ratio of unhealthy and healthy food retailer toward a greater presence of healthy food retail. Communities should work to increase the presence of many types of healthy food retailers, promote affordable healthy food, and decrease the prevalence of and exposure to unhealthy food retail.