The cornerstone of a healthy and balanced diet is access to a variety of nourishing, enjoyable, and affordable foods. Food swamps, much like food deserts, are a substantial obstacle to this.

Researchers generally define food swamps as neighborhoods or geographic areas with a greater concentration of outlets that sell less nutritious foods, such as fast food and snacks, than outlets with more nutritious, minimally processed options.

Fast food locations may include restaurants, grocery store delis, gas stations, and corner stores or bodegas.

Some research further defines food swamps as areas with four or more convenience stores within a quarter-mile radius of a person’s residence.

Convenience stores include sole proprietor- and chain-owned dollar stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and corner stores.

Both fast food eateries and convenience stores offer less expensive, high calorie foods with low nutritional value, such as chips, cookies, fried foods, and soda. Corner stores may also sell alcohol and tobacco products.

Although many fast food establishments and convenience stores offer a selection of nutritious, whole food options, the proportion of less nutritious and highly processed foods “swamps” these options out.

In other words, shoppers are more exposed to less nutritious choices, often at a much lower price point. As a result, less nutritious options are the more convenient, more affordable choices.

Multiple economic, political, social, environmental, and structural inequities contribute to unequal food access.

The populations most vulnerable to the effects of food swamps tend to be lower income, historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups who rely on public transportation and do not have private vehicles. Within these communities, children and older adults are the most vulnerable age groups.

Although all racial and ethnic groups feel the effects of food insecurity and food swamps, a national sample of 4,305 online survey participants in the United States found that non-Hispanic Black people were more likely than other demographic groups to report living in a food swamp.

Some Canadian literature suggests that food swamps may be more prevalent than food deserts and, when compared to city averages, may be more prevalent in ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

Terms such as “food desert” and “food swamp” are commonly used to describe the accessibility — or lack thereof — of food on a day-to-day basis in individual communities.

Food deserts are associated with low access to nutrient-dense foods.

Food swamps are related to the wider availability and accessibility of foods with low nutrient density, often procured from fast food outlets and small stores that heavily stock and overly advertise processed foods, alcohol, and tobacco.

In some cases, a food desert can also be classified as a food swamp.

Neighborhoods without grocery stores or supermarkets (food deserts) that are inundated with fast food and convenience stores offering easy access to less nutritious foods (food swamps) are an example of this.

Infants exposed to foods high in sugar and saturated fat may be at higher risk for chronic diseases in adulthood.

Further, children who consistently eat a diet lacking in essential nutrients may develop what UNICEF calls “hidden hunger.” Prolonged hidden hunger may contribute to poor cognitive and physical development.

Research also suggests that diets low in nutrient-dense foods but high in calories, saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium are associated with the development of chronic health conditions such as the following:

In a 2019 cross-sectional analysis, researchers connected food swamps with increased rates of hospitalization in people living with diabetes and concluded that increased food swamp severity was associated with higher rates of hospitalization.

A 2018 analysis of urban food security across Southern Africa suggested that a lack of nourishment can weaken the immune system and increase vulnerability to antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.

The existence of food swamps is a systemic issue, not an individual one.

The average person cannot solve systemic inequalities and other forms of oppression. This must be addressed at the municipal and national levels in order to create lasting, impactful change.

Local, regional, and federal governments can develop policies and systems to support the following goals:

A food swamp is an area that has more access to less nutritious foods than nutrient-dense foods.

Research indicates that food swamps most affect historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups, especially Black people living in under-resourced neighborhoods.

In addition to addressing the structural inequities that contribute to food swamps, local governments can reduce the “swamp” of less nutritious food options by supporting a wide variety of accessible and affordable food outlets.