‘Fast food is very political’

Researcher outlines public policies to stop the expansion of food swamps in neighborhoods

Santa Fe officials have known for nearly a decade that the city, particularly its Southside, meets the well-agreed upon definition of a food desert: a low-income neighborhood that lacks easy access to healthy, affordable foods.

They have known for even longer, but perhaps paid less attention to a potentially more insidious, more dangerous phenomenon: The Southside is also filled with food swamps, defined as neighborhoods where unhealthy foods are more readily available than healthy foods.

>>Read More Coverage: Draining the Food Swamp

While there have been efforts, nearly all of them unsuccessful, to address the food desert issue, the Southside's food swamps remain less discussed.

Kristen Cooksey-Stowers, an adjunct professor and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, spoke with SFR about the ways in which city leaders, activists and residents can change public policy to prevent or stop the expansion of food swamps in neighborhoods and about the importance of creating maps with a focus on the food swamp effect versus food deserts.

Here are some of Cooksey-Stowers' suggestions to address food swamps and create healthier food environments:

– Create food swamp maps to identify "priority areas inspired by zoning regulations."

– Always make choices based on evidence. Not doing so "is not only potentially ineffective in reaching health goals, but also these things don't happen in a vacuum and there are politics around the industry. Fast food is very political. Without [the food swamp map] and assessment the backlash can actually undermine the policy effort."

– "If the fast food is already [in the community], then zoning regulations are still helpful because there are many types." Total bans on fast food restaurants are not the only option. "Temporary bans and quotas are also helpful. As we know, local governments have these choices." It's important that residents step up to pressure and support their elected officials in order to get zoning changes.

– "You can only make as much change as zoning policies allow. It's time to look at land use and zoning as a potential barrier and facilitator of these improvements… For the most part the municipalities that have been successful in introducing fast food regulations are predominantly white and affluent. … There are other things that are competing with [grocery stores] and if a community has not had healthy retail in a long time there will be a need for a culture shift and a culture change to adjust to those options."

– "The other policy tool is licensing. For [the unhealthy retail] that is already there, how can we set some standards on the within-store food environment in fast food restaurants to at least get a little bit closer in the right direction. These establishments have to pass certain requirements to renew their license. That involves an auditing process, so how can you introduce politics so that in the licensing renewal process, there is a nutrition and health focus?"

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