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Food swamps, not deserts? Studies say more urban access to food than thought

A Safeway customer shops for milk at Safeway's new
A Safeway customer shops for milk at Safeway's new "Lifestyle" store July 18, 2007 in Livermore, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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There’s been ample coverage of reports on food deserts, those swaths of lower income, urban neighborhoods said to be barren of fresh fruits and vegetables, with Michelle Obama and others promoting grocery store access. Are these areas, however, actually store-filled food swamps? A few recent studies claim as much.

One study is “The Role of Local Food Availability and Explaining Obesity Risk,” published in the March issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine, authored by researcher Helen Lee of nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank the Public Policy Institute of California.

Lee’s study found that not only are there nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores in lower income neighborhoods as wealthier ones, but these poor areas have more than three times as many corner stores per square mile, and nearly twice as many supermarkets and large-scale grocers per square mile.

“What I found was surprising to me, because I actually found that, consistent with the literature, there were more fast food and convenience stores but there were also more supermarkets and large scale grocery stores.,” said Lee. “This study’s not saying that food deserts don’t exist in poor neighborhoods, at least in this national data, when I look at patterns I am not seeing a consistent pattern, thereby low income families have worse access to food stores.”

Lee’s study, however, didn’t have access to the type and quality of food in those stores. The study used data from a federal survey of 8,000 children ranging in age from kindergarten to fifth grade, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, tracking the height and weight of the kids over time, as well as the neighborhoods they lived in and went to school. Lee also used data on the locations of food establishments, from restaurants to chain grocery stores, from a national database.

“The access question doesn’t get to what are people buying and why are they buying it,” said Lee. “It’s a struggle that all parents have whether you’re wealthy or whether you’re poor. The question of how do I get my kids to eat things that are healthy that they don’t necessarily choose for themselves.”

Another study, published in February in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found no relationship between children’s weight, the kind of food they said they ate and the type of food near their homes.


If you live in a low income, urban area, do you consider it a food desert, or a food swamp? Even if there are more stores in these areas, is the quality of food, such as produce, better or worse than in wealthier areas?


Helen Lee, researcher at nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank the Public Policy Institute of California, and author of the study “The Role of Local Food Availability and Explaining Obesity Risk” in the March issue of the journal “Social Science & Medicine”

Toni Yancey, professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and co-director of the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity