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Food Deserts and Food Swamps

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 22:29:30 PM PDT

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Today the USDA released a report on food deserts. The report was the result of a 1-year study, required by the 2008 farm bill. While those familiar with the term "food desert" know immediately what the report is about - areas of the U.S. where healthy food is unavailable - it's also important to note that the term has garnered some controversy lately. Another term I've heard offered up instead is "food apartheid," to highlight the injustice of the situation. The Washington Post's Jane Black uses another term: food swamp... areas that are totally saturated with fast food, convenience stores, and liquor stores that peddle junk. More on the report's findings below.
Jill Richardson :: Food Deserts and Food Swamps
Here are some of the stats from the report:

104.9 million - Number of households in the U.S.
25.1 million - Number of households in low income areas in the U.S.
5.9 million - Number of households in low income rural areas.
10.8 million - Number of households in the U.S. without access to a vehicle.

2.2% - Percent of households that live more than 1 mile from a supermarket AND do not have access to a vehicle.

3.8% - Percent of households in low income areas that live more than 1 mile from the supermarket AND do not have access to a vehicle.

4.4% - Percent of households in rural areas that live more than 1 mile from the supermarket AND do not have access to a vehicle.

7.4% - Percent of households in low income, rural areas that live more than 1 mile from a supermarket AND do not have access to a vehicle.

In other words, you're most likely to be far from a supermarket and stuck without a car in a low-income, rural area. Another interesting number in the report is that 20.2% of urban residents are low income individuals living more than 1 mile from the nearest supermarket.

How about households that are 1/2 to 1 mile from a supermarket? Here are the stats:

3.2% - Percent of households living 1/2 to 1 mile from a supermarket with no access to a vehicle.

17.8% - Percent of households in low income areas living 1/2 to 1 mile from a supermarket with no access to a vehicle.

22% - Percent of households in low income urban areas living 1/2 to 1 mile from a supermarket with no access to a vehicle.

The report notes that a 2001 survey found that nearly 6 percent of U.S. households did not always have food due to access related problems.

Another interesting chart shows whether people shopped along or with kids and how they got to the store. On the whole, most people go to the store in a car (90.2%). The group least likely to drive are people in low income areas who live within a half mile of the store (65.3% drive; 23.1% walk or bike). The group most likely to drive are people NOT in low income areas who live more than 1 mile from a store (96.7% drive; 0.3% walk or bike). Compare that to the people in low income areas who live more than a mile from a store - 93.3% drive, and 2.3% walk or bike.

How about people who go shopping with their kids? 48.8% of all people go shopping alone, whereas 22.8% bring their kids. However, 29.1% of people in low income areas who live more than 1 mile from a store bring their kids along for the trip.

So how does this translate into what people actually eat? They note that "better access to a supermarket or large grocery store is associated with healthier food intakes" and "greater availability of fast food restaurants and lower prices of fast food items are related to poorer diet." Additionally, the report says that "better access to a supermarket is associated with reduced risk of obesity and better access to convenience stores is associated with increased risk of obesity."

As you might imagine, the report found that convenience stores generally charge higher prices than supermarkets, but they also found that low-income consumers spend only 2-3 percent of their food budget at convenience stores. All in all, the USDA was unable to determine whether people in areas with limited access to food actually had inadequate access to food.

The total volume of data presented in the report is dizzying, so I am not going to summarize the remainder of it here, but I'll leave you with one other interesting bit of data that looks at what kinds of foods food stamp recipients bought.

Comparing average purchases of food stamp recipients who frequently shop at supermarkets vs. those who do not shop at supermarkets, the supermarket shopper was more likely to buy non-canned vegetables (86% vs. 78%); non-canned fruits (95% vs. 78%) and canned fruits (42% vs. 36%). Non-supermarket shoppers were slightly more likely to buy canned vegetables (70% vs. 67%).

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I have a bone to pick with the low income rural resident stats (4.00 / 2)
People who are low income, without a vehicle, and in a city are much more dependant on a 2nd party, such as a grocery or convenience store, for food. They are much more dependant on money for that food, at least as far as volume goes.

People in rural areas are much more likely to have access to land on which they can grow their own. They generally are more likely to have access to neighbors who can help them, if they let the neighbor know they need help, either with seed or with planting, knowleage on planting, preserving, etc.

Also, Supermarkets are probably going to be farther away from you in a rural area than in an urban area simply because of land use laws, and the fact that, especially if you're in the hinterlands, the blocks of land are so big. If you're in the middle of Klamath county, your nearest neighbor may be a mile or more away, forget the grocery store.

I used to have a friend who's dad had 80 acres in northern Idaho, right near the Canada/USA border. They would get snowed in during the winter, this was normal. They made sure they had a full larder before the snow got too deep to get out. They knew if they didn't they'd starve. This guy also raised cattle and hunted regularly, and they had a big enough garden that they could put up enough to get them through of what they grew themselves. The kind of lived like it was the 1800's. The nearest town was 40-50 miles away.

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....

Joanne's got a good point (0.00 / 0)
Does the study discuss at all the number of rural people who grow their own food?

I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
--"Blueberries" by Robert Frost

nope (4.00 / 1)
they didn't even assume that was an option for people, from what I saw. They just assumed we all buy food from the store.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Those would be interesting things to look at. (4.00 / 1)

I would expect that there is a lot of 'depends on the area.'
I live in a rural area, lots of farms and lots of space, though not the large distances between residents and towns that Joanne is referring too. Many people here do grow their own food but overall it's not as common as one would expect. At least when I moved here I was surprised how many people just don't, even though the land is easily available to do it.  The huge, looking good, lawn is just as common here as it is an any suburban setting, except the size is just increased. It astounds me sometimes as I drive around at the sheer amount of lawn that people spend time an effort cutting. :)  I run into the same social norms that I did in the city or larger towns about it being just 'weird' or 'icky' to have a veggie garden in the front where it can be seen, though in this case the 'front' might be half an acre or more.  The lawn tractor definately reigns supreme and a recent cosmetic lawn chemical ban has angered many.

I think the key word though is 'likely'. Rural area residents are more likely to have space to grow if they so desire. Even in the three years I've been around here I have found interest in growing food increasing and having the space to do it is barely ever a problem.

Just some random musing on some things I have encountered in talking to people who are interested in growing their own food and perhaps don't have a background in knowing the skills. I don't want to generalize to much but I have encountered some interesting perceptions which I think may be pertinent when talking about the potential that lower income people have in taking up food growing. The major one is, 'well I don't have the money in the first place to make a garden, it's expensive.'  Getting deeper into that perception is that in order to 'garden' properly you need to have a lot of expensive equipment. Namely things like a tiller. I think that comes from a couple of places. One is that many people that do garden around here have large patches of ground, grow in huge rows and till like crazy. So when people ask 'so how do I do it' that's a method they are introduced too. The other is the prevalance of 'garden gadgets', garden sections in stores and what I'll just call a certain asthetics in what a garden 'should' look and all the equipment you need to do it.  A new gardener that walks into the garden section of any major store is literally bombarded with 'how tos' and so many products that one needs to do this gardening thing. All of which cost money. Then of course there are the garden mags. Sure I'd like to garden but I'm not Martha frickin Stewart. :D
I think this leads to a perception that if one doesn't have all of this stuff then they can't do it properly. At least that's something I've run into a lot.

The other one is the time involved. People imagine having to toil for hours daily and can't see themselves doing that for many different reasons.  This intersects with the plethora of gadgets out there. Many garden gadgets and products are marketed as timesavers and making things easier. There are many that do of course but there are many that don't really make a huge difference depending on how one gardens. So the perception I've come across is that is one can't afford all these great things they'll be forced to toil in the dirt and they're struggling enough already.  

The way that I garden, in beds and small squares, is an annomoly here. So much so that people actually come to see my 'weird' garden and I've been asked to speak about it at a local garden club because it's so durn strange.  I've lost count about how many actual gardeners are surprised and sometimes disbelieving that I garden, successfully, without tilling and without growing in huge long rows.  They also have problems comprehending that I don't have to spend hours hoeing and weeding or watering all the time.

The other thing I found really ironic was that even though we're surrounded by farms and the stuff is really cheap using straw as mulch or as a soil ammendment is also something weird and different and 'new'.  Actually mulching itself is something different though it's use is gaining in awareness.  The use an availability of landscape fabrics has increased over the years. They're great, easy and convenient but again it's $$$. Ten bucks might not seem a lot to many people but when you have no little money it looks different.  When I tell people oh I just use newspaper or cardboard for that, that I get free from local recycling places I get funny looks. 'You mean you can use that and it works?'.  :D

Currently I'm helping out one woman, a single mom, set up a small garden in beds and is so happy to discover that no she doesn't need a costly tiller, nor much equipment beyond a couple of shovels, trowels, a hose, watering can, a rake and a small hand hoe. She also thought that you really did need those seedstarting greenhouse trays and numerous other 'things' to do it properly. It might sound strange but in her perception she thought that using left over plastic food containers that one would through out was wrong or wouldn't work.  

I also don't find that many people here do a lot a of preserving and growing more then they need at harvest. Gardening is more a supplemental for the summer months and fall months and not a main source of foodstuff year round. Doing that seems to be something that has been lost somewhat, likely because it is easy to buy things at stores when the fresh stuff runs out.  Preserving the harvest can be a lot of work. I've found that even older people who might have grown up doing that just don't anymore.  What happens is that knowledge and wisdom about gardening for that sort of thing is harder to come by and cheaper  more independent of stores ways of doing it are harder to come by.  

Actually I don't think any of these thoughts are just relegated to rural lower income people but generally to lower income people where ever they might live. I've run into the perception that gardening is really expensive, enough times that it's something I've been pondering on how to overcome. I'm an uber cheap gardener because that's what I've been forced to do over the past couple of years.

Oh an one more thing. Seedsaving. This of course is a really cheap way to garden. It's another thing that I've found that even gardeners that have been doing it for years just don't do have much knowledge on how to do properly.  It's likely a matter of convenience as well as the use of hybrid seeds.  I've worked with people new to gardening that don't even realize that yes you can save seeds and yes it really does work. Seeds come from packages that you buy at the grocery store you know. :D


good concept, bad term (4.00 / 2)
The concept of a place that's overrun with crappy food is a troubling and unfortunately, real and timely one, but terming these places "food swamps" is a bad idea.

Swamps are some of the most bio-diverse places on the planet (1). There has been an uphill battle fought for decades (arguably for over a century in some quarters) to overcome the stereotype of swamps as sinister wastelands and to push people to understand swamps as the lush, beautiful, valuable, and highly productive places they are.

The relationship between agriculture and swamplands is a complicated one. In the U.S. it's estimated that more than half of the pre-colonial wetland acreage has been drained, primarily for agricultural purposes (2). However much of the world's food is still generated (some places sustainably and some place not so sustainably) in the remaining intact swampland. For example, the vast majority of commercially harvested fish and shellfish species are wetland-dependent at some point in their life cycles (3).

So to not propogate on old, outdated stereotype, anyone have a good suggestion for an alternative term to "food swamp"? Maybe "food parking lot" or "food dump" or "food monoculture" or (my favorite candidate so far) "food cesspool".......?

As an aside, since someone will probably comment on this, not all wetlands are "swamps". "Swamp" is a semi-colloquial, semi-technical term usually reserved for a forested wetland that is inundated with water for most if not all of the year.


Great for pointing that out. I missed that. (4.00 / 2)

My property leads into a marshy, swamp like area that bleeds into a lake. I'm learning to garden with some of it's ecological features rather then against it, like draining etc which is typical and what many people have said I should do.  I won't. The land is so rich and crazy fertile. I call it my backyard jungle because it's so lush. Last year I planted a squash on a small piece of high ground, at least at planting time it was high ground, it's waterlogged in early spring, and the thing grew to over 40 feet and I got huge, melt in your mouth squash out of it. I only watered it once the entire season and didn't bother with fertilizer.  

The other technique I'm trying this year is in one area I have put in some raised beds but I've tried to keep them lined up with the way the water drains. I did this mainly because the ground is so wet that I can't plant early crops. This way I, hope I haven't effected the drainage pattern too much. Hopefully if it works the water will still do what it usually does between the beds (get wet and swampy) but there will be some soil high enough to plant sooner.  The other thing I'm trying out is growing hydroponically on some of the puddle ponds on floating island things that are made out of styrofoam.  I met a guy who has grown some veggies in a man made pond doing this so we're doing some experimentation with some of those techniques this year.


[ Parent ]
interesting (4.00 / 1)
Glad to hear of people trying to work with wetlands on their land, and that in your case you're finding some approaches that seem to be working. You make a great point that wetland soils are often not only wet, but nutrient rich. Also, if saturated most of the year, their temperature is moderated, so they would be frost-free earlier and probably at least hard frost-free later in the growing season.

Also, the techniques you're talking about fit in well with the push to better manage "green water" (or soil water) as a way to reduce irrigation demand by cutting back on water loss/evaporation in farming:

[ Parent ]
Actually they're not (4.00 / 1)
 raised beds as you would regularly think of making a raised bed. Overall they're only a few inches above the spring water or soggy level as I call it. What I did was build a box and put in on top of the soil and dug down between the boxes and put the soil I dug into the boxes. The concept being that the area will still get waterlogged but the top few inches will drain sooner and hopefully enough to get early seeds in so they won't rot. Then as the water recedes like it does every year the roots will just grow down. I have no idea whether it will work as I have to wait to see next spring.  My gut says that it will but that's pretty much what I'm going on because I haven't been able to find any info about gardening like this. Most books I read are all about how to drain areas for planting.

I'm doing a lot of gut gardening as there are other things that I'm doing with this situation that don't match with what you should do. In some areas there isn't a lot of depth of topsoil as the ecology is marsh soil on top of rocky hardpan. That's what allows this  overall system to work. Without the hardpan it wouldn't drain like it does into the marsh. Most gardening books talk about loosening the subsoil up to a certain depth and the inches needs to grow things.  I hate digging in the first place and last year was the first year I planted most of my garden. I thought there was more topsoil in one half of the garden then there was and only discovered what I dealing with when I went to plant. Well I didn't have time to dig out hardpan so I just didn't. I planted my tomatoes anyway and in some places they were on in five to six inches of soil. I expected them not to grow that well because everything that I thought I knew before indicated that they likely wouldn't. I figured I would get to digging it out this year.  Boy was I ever wrong. The plants in that area actually grew better then the area that had more soil depth and I only watered them until the transplants were established. They grew upwards of 7ft plus easy and I had more fruit then I knew what to do with.  They got so big that this year I've planted them farther apart because it got to the point where they were a huge mass that I could barely walk through.

So I'm going with my gut and not digging into the hardpan and focusing on keeping the soil as fertile and as similar to the terrain that I started with as possible. If I ever want to plant something that does need more soil depth I'll build up instead of digging down or just get varieties that don't need as much. Like with carrots I'm trying some heritage varieties that are short and stubby, rather then long and lean.  

[ Parent ]
good call (4.00 / 1)
and on the other hand, deserts are full of life as well. They might be prickly and poisonous forms of life but they aren't totally devoid of anything as the term implies.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
good point (4.00 / 1)
Have been trying to think of a good alternative. "Food wasteland"? Or does the term "food desert" have too much momentum at this point?  

[ Parent ]
food swamp (4.00 / 2)
I'd like to suggest "food superfund site". It seems that a lot of toxic waste will have to be cleared away from these places and a lot of people rehabilitated from the diseases they have acquired while trying to survive in a contaminated community. Food swamp has too many benign and life giving connotations to accurately describe the kind of place we're talking about, and will require a lot more work than digging ditches to mitigate.

[ Parent ]
NICE!!!! (4.00 / 1)
I'm down with that!!! Food Superfund site!

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Those are some amazing comments (4.00 / 1)
Elizajade, I like your re-use of containers for starting seed. As far as saving seed, I've run into that as well. Saving seed can be problematic if you're planting F1 hybrids or have things that can cross that are blooming at the same time, but on the other hand, sometimes that type of hybridization can be a good thing too. We have bean seed that we've been saving for years. Every year I plant some of the parent stock (the original varieties we started out with) and we save the seed. Some beans I use for soup in the winter, what's left over we plant. I always get soup beans that have a great smokey flavor similar to a black turtle bean, and the saved seed always germinates better than what I buy at the store. The parent stock I use are Romano, Blue Lake, and Rattlesnake beans. This year I'm adding in a Blue Lake type bean from Italy.

I agree too with your comments on preserving food. I subscribe to the philosophy of TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. You either pay inderect with money or direct with labor. Either way you pay.

I also like how you're working with your swampy land. Sounds  

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....

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