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Obesity Food Deserts Have Given Way to Food Swamps

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The concept of “food deserts” is constantly being qualified and refuted by economists and public health commentators from all corners. Is there really limited access to fresh produce in impoverished communities? Is junk and fast food really cheaper than a holistic nutritious meal? Or is it all an unqualified stereotype that society has blindly accepted over the years?

A recent study by RAND Corporation senior economist Dr. Roland Sturm questions the link between food deserts and childhood obesity. His theory is simple: there is an abundance of healthy food options in impoverished communities, so the correlation between poverty and obesity can hardly be linked to the concept of “food deserts.” In fact, Strum and New York Times’ journalist Gina Kolata question whether or not food deserts even exist.

But they are both wrong and right in several ways. While the concept of “food deserts” is an ill-conceived notion that may instantly be undermined with a quick stroll through an impoverished neighborhood in Camden, NJ, and its plethora of supermarkets, arguments like those made by Sturm and Kolata completely miss the elephant in the room. Indeed, obesity and poverty are inextricably linked, but not because of minimal access to healthy options at grocery stores; rather, a culture that is over exposed to the marketing of junk food and the dismissal of nutrition education as the true culprit. 

No matter how many grocery stores are in the heart of a neighborhood like East New York, Brooklyn, it is entirely nullified by the billboards of families surrounding a bucket of KFC. Hence, as it is so often argued, the real issue is not food “deserts,” but food “swamps” that have subjected poor families to an abundance of junk food marketing and the absence of nutrition education. The only solution to this longstanding dilemma is to push for more advertisement of healthy foods and raise awareness about healthy options on tighter budgets. Such a task is one that should come to the forefront of Michelle Obama’s wellness and fitness campaign and the USDA’s informational materials.

The food swamp culture is one that consists of over $4.2 billion worth of fast food advertisement in a single year and twice as many fast food restaurants in impoverished areas than in more affluent communities. Meanwhile, Kolata and others operate under the illusion that having twice as many grocery stores “within miles radius” (assuming that a miles walk with a handful of groceries is an easy feat for those who cannot afford a car) somehow dismisses the link between food deserts and obesity. While there are certainly more grocery stores in these densely populated communities (after all, they are densely populated), studies by the USDA indicate that there is a more direct link between the abundance of junk foods and obesity in impoverished locales than there is between the absence of fresh produce and obesity. Thus, the “food swamp” terminology makes a lot more sense than the stumbling block caused by the word “desert.”

Ms. Obama’s attention to the issue of obesity is overdue and wholeheartedly appreciated, as well as the USDA’s media blitz with MyPlate. However, both fail to adequately address the absence of nutrition education and eating healthy on tight budgets. In many ways, regional food banks have attempted to fill this void by incorporating nutrition education into their mission. Foodlink, Rochester’s regional food bank as well as my employer, provides courses such as Cooking Matters at emergency food relief organizations (i.e., food pantries and soup kitchens) to teach individuals how to shop, cook, and eat health on a tight budget.

Unfortunately, there are deeply ingrained issues that impede nutrition education. Youth that live in impoverished conditions are not adequately taught nutrition education, and their parents are already a part of a “more bang for your buck” culture that seeks to purchase more calories per cent. When the argument is made that the nutritional value of healthy foods is actually a better deal than the sugar and fat rich junk foods that ultimately lead to medical expenses, it completely ignores the food swamp culture that has conditioned many to believe that 50 cent Luna Cakes and Tropical Fantasy are more worth it than 35 cent bananas. It also fails to raise a simple, yet perplexing, issue: when is the last time anyone saw a fruit or vegetable on a billboard? When is the last time anyone has seen a Del Monte commercial?

Another opportunity to promote healthy lifestyles that is so often ignored is EBT Cards. Although there are plenty of healthy foods that can be purchased with Benefits Cards, many individuals subconsciously bypass their local Pathmarks for bodegas and Family Dollars that, if they have any fruits at all, carry close-to-date products of the lowest, yet cheapest, value. As many food banks are finding, some people simply may not know that they can use their EBT Cards at Farmers’ Markets. Such an issue is one that ought to be at the forefront of the USDA’s and Ms. Obama’s push for healthy lifestyles in poorer communities.

All of these hurdles that make up food swamp culture go hand and hand with the 35.7% obesity rate in America. The arguments surrounding the food “desert terminology is simply a nuance. Until healthy eating and education saturates the advertisement industry, junk will monopolize poor neighborhoods.

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