February 28, 2023

Should We Still Be Saying "Food Desert"?

Giorgio Rivera, Getty Images

By reframing how we think about food insecurity, including using the terms "food desert" and "food swamp," we can create more equitable food systems.

Limited access to quality, healthy, and affordable food continues to impact many families and individuals in the U.S. — and Massachusetts is no exception. A June 2022 report from the Greater Boston Food Bank stated that 1 in 3 Massachusetts families experienced food insecurity in the last year. A number of multi-layered factors can shape someone’s experience with food insecurity, including economic constraints, barriers to accessible transportation, lack of affordable and healthy food retail options in your neighborhood, and the rising cost of healthy, nourishing food. However, focusing only on factors and challenges that are experienced at a personal level can hide larger structural forces that shape systemic and racial inequities in health connected to food and nutrition.

Terms like “food desert” and, more recently, “food swamp,” have come into the cultural lexicon to describe neighborhoods that do not have access to healthy, nourishing food. Although this terminology has helped to draw attention to the fact that some communities lack resources and access to those resources, it’s also important to consider language that points to the root causes of current health inequities connected to food.

What is the difference between food desert vs. food swamp?

Evoking the imagery of a wasteland, “food desert” is a common phrase used to describe a neighborhood or section of a city where it’s hard for people to access healthy food, many of which are low-income communities and communities of color. “Access” is a multi-layered word here — a neighborhood may technically have a grocery store, but it may not be accessible by public transportation. Further, the store may not have affordable, appealing, or fresh food or offer food that connects to a variety of cultural or food traditions, which limits the number of people who can ultimately access it.

“Focusing only on factors and challenges that are experienced at a personal level can hide larger structural forces that shape systemic and racial inequities in health connected to food and nutrition.”

“Food swamp” is often used to describe a neighborhood where there is an over-concentration of convenience stores, fast food, and gas stations where people can access cheap and quick but unhealthy food. A classic example is a neighborhood where there isn’t access to a grocery store, but there’s a McDonald’s or a corner store that has the odd banana, but little else. In many cases, a neighborhood that is considered a “food desert” can also be called a “food swamp.”

What is a food apartheid?

Both “food desert” and “food swamp” interplay and reflect different framings around which someone may understand an issue around food access. Though these terms are helpful in setting context, they have limitations. They are not comprehensive definitions because they don’t speak to the structural or systemic perspective. They also suggest that the current food environments are naturally occurring, hiding that fact that historical and structurally racist policies, such as redlining and economic disinvestment of low-income communities and communities of color, have led to these existing barriers.

“The forces that have shaped what entities of food — healthy or not — exist in a community, are a product by design of inequitable political, economic, and structural forces.”

The forces that have shaped what entities of food — healthy or not — exist in a community, are a product by design of inequitable political, economic, and structural forces. In response, many advocates are using the term “food apartheid.” This phrase speaks to the fact that centuries of systemic racism has been bolstered by policies, such as financial disincentives for grocery stores, smaller retailers, and other food entrepreneurs to put down roots in neighborhoods that are considered “unprofitable” or economically disadvantaged — with the exception of corporate and fast food outlets.

Moving past food deserts toward community-based solutions

The “food desert” and “food swamp” terminology also doesn’t speak to how residents are already organizing and working to combat these challenges with community care and mutual aid. Ultimately, both terms use a deficit frame, ignoring the many rich and existing community resources, assets, and strengths. Communities have and are finding ways to feed themselves and each other in healthy ways on a smaller scale — neighbor to neighbor.

There were many examples of this in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and have since continued. For example, several mutual aid efforts grew in response to the end of school lunches and sought to make sure students could still access those two meals a day usually provided at school. Neighbors rallied to put together community fridges, neighborhood church dinners, or community gardens. I’ve seen this level of care from the grassroots level in many of the same communities often described as a “food desert.”



One example locally here in Boston is the VVN Community Data Workgroup, a group of resident leaders who developed the Boston Abundance App, a tool which attempts to capture food access in real-time and where users can find affordable options for healthy food in and around their neighborhoods. The project came out of a community-led effort to better understand local residents’ experience with food security and which neighborhoods still bear the burden of those structural inequities, and is highlighted in this data story from VVN.

The Community Data workgroup created a framework called “The Six As,” which can help guide how one experiences food access and if a neighborhood has resources to feed themselves: available, accessible, accurate, adequate, appropriate, and awareness.

Led by Suzeth Dunn-Dyer, Patrick Dunn-Dyer, Sunday Taylor, Rosalyn Johnson, and supported by VVN staff members, workgroup members sought to invite important questions through this framework: Do the resources exist? Can neighbors reliably access these resources? Have they been developed in an accurate way that ensures their benefit to the neighborhood? Is there enough — is it adequate? Do the resources meet the needs of the neighborhood in an appropriate way? Is there an awareness in the community? In an attempt to answer these questions, the project also developed an interactive resource map that works to plot pantries, kitchens, supermarkets, urban markets, senior dining sites, farmers markets, and fresh food pick-up sites.

The more we lift up these stories of community-driven and resident-led solutions, the more it can change negative perceptions and mindsets about neighborhoods that are described as “food swamps” and “food deserts.” By highlighting other dimensions — valuable community assets, scalable innovations, and the collective action and leadership of residents — we can move toward a more equitable, community-driven future where more neighborhoods and communities are able to take care of one another. 

Vital Village Networks is a community engagement network embedded within the Boston Medical Health System that has worked with local residents and partners in Boston and communities across the country to build healthy and equitable food systems.

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About the Author

Diana Rivera, MSW, MPH

As a public health social worker, Diana is committed to advancing racial, economic, and health equity ensuring that our most vulnerable communities thrive in healthy communities of opportunity and are at the forefront driving policy and sys...

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