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How ‘food swamps’ make us fat

Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

“Food desert” is an often-cited description of a neighborhood with limited access to affordable, nutritious food. But you may be surprised to hear that areas near highway exits that are surrounded by fast-food chains have a name of their own: “food swamps.”

At food swamps around the country, unhealthy eating options far outnumber healthy alternatives. A recent national study by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity said that food swamps have a stronger impact on obesity rates than food deserts.

Metro Minute spoke with the study’s lead author, Kristen Cooksey-Stowers, to better understand food swamps and how they affect community health. (Comments have been edited and condensed.)


What were you focusing on during this research?

This study was geared toward documenting the national presence of food swamps at the county level. The empirical question that I set out to investigate in this work was “Are food swamps the same places as food deserts?” I think that has important implications for us as we design policy and nutrition interventions focused on community-level changes.

What common characteristics did you find throughout these food swamp counties?

There are about four or more unhealthy retailers to every one healthy option. We found that the food-swamp effect on obesity was much stronger in areas where the population was less transient. Folks with access to a vehicle or reliable public transport were less stuck and impacted by the food-swamp phenomenon — as relates to their body mass index — relative to counties where less of the population is mobile. In those counties, you saw a higher food-swamp effect on BMI.

What are the greater implications of this research?

We saw a lot more clustering by the highway exits, so when you overlay highway exits you can sort of see that they go right through the food swamp counties. I think there’s important implications as we think about planning development, zoning, those types of things. So just how we structure our communities and what that means for food access and then of course health.


The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Sophia Eppolito can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.