The Rand Corporation recently published a study finding that a ban on the addition of fast-food outlets to the neighborhood of South L.A. was unlikely to reduce obesity rates so long as there was a large concentration of convenience and small grocery stores where "high-energy" snacks are plentiful.
In an interview on the public radio program Marketplace, Roland Strum, the author of the study, commented that the proliferation of convenience stores in poor urban areas had created "food swamps": "It's less that people [live] in food deserts now, it's more that people live in food swamps.... If we believe that the food environment is a major cause of obesity, then the big differences we see are in small convenience stores."
Authors Donald Rose, J. Nicholas Bodor, Chris M. Swalm, Janet C. Rice, Thomas A. Farley, and Paul L. Hutchinson coined the term in a February 2009 paper, entitled Deserts in New Orleans? Illustrations of Urban Food Access and Implications for Policy (PDF), as an alternative to food desert, commonly defined as "deprived areas with poor access to retail food outlets."
"[A] more useful geographic metaphor," Rose et al. suggest, "would be 'food swamps,' areas in which large relative amounts of energy-dense snack foods, inundate healthy food options"
Their study of one such place -- the city of New Orleans -- faulted the large number of convenience stores (and lack of supermarkets), where the availability of snack foods significantly outweighed that of healthy foods:
Photo: Diego Cupolo.
"The caloric imbalance that leads to obesity is, of course, an issue about entire diets, not specific foods. But the extensive amount of energy-dense offerings available at these venues may in fact inundate, or swamp out, what relatively few healthy choice foods there are. Thus, we suggest that a more useful metaphor to be used is 'food swamps' rather than food deserts."