A Recipe For Disease: Food Deserts and Air Pollution

On my way to a party recently, I decided at the last minute to pick up a bottle of wine and some fruit to contribute to the festivities. I was already near my destination and began to drive around looking for a grocery store. After circling several blocks with no luck, I engaged my GPS, only to discover that there were no grocery stores for miles in any direction.

I was in a food desert!

Food Deserts and Food Swamps

And as it turns out, my hometown and state, Houston, Texas are full of them. Recently, I was introduced to the notion of food deserts and food swamps, and I realized instantly, the same people who are suffering the ill-effects of air pollution and poor access to health care, are also bearing the brunt of almost no access to quality, nutritious food. Some of my city’s policy-makers are aware of this and pushing to increase food access.

food desert, according to Dr. Ann Barnes, Medical Director for Weight Management Services and Disease Prevention at Harris County Hospital District, is when one third of the residents in a census tract are over one mile from a full-service supermarket or grocery store.

Food swamps are communities in which there is an overabundance of high caloric, nutrient-poor foods versus healthy foods. In Texas, the uneven distribution of supermarkets statewide has resulted in large areas of residents that go without. Texas ranks lowest in the nation for supermarket density per population.

The shortage of supermarkets particularly impacts lower-income residents with limited resources for an adequate diet. In Houston, where 21% of the population lives below the poverty line, the poor that are disproportionately affected by the lack of supermarkets live mostly on the eastern parts of the city. It is no coincidence that these areas are the same parts of the city plagued with air pollution and unhealthy conditions.

Obesity, Asthma and Air Pollution

The Food Trust, a national research and advocacy organization, found that studies overwhelmingly indicate that people living in food deserts suffer disproportionately high rates of obesity and other diet-related issues. And, even though asthma is not considered a diet-related disease, high incidences of asthma appear in these communities as well. Poor diet contributes to and worsens asthma. There is a direct link between obesity and the incidence of asthma and asthma-related mortality. According to the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, the rise in obesity rates has paralleled the rise in asthma in recent decades. And conversely, significant weight loss has been associated with improvements in both asthma control and lung function. The higher one’s body mass index, the higher one’s risk of asthma.

Food deserts are almost always food swamps, meaning that where they are lacking in access to wholesome groceries choices, there is an abundance of unhealthy, fast-food opportunities. Sugar, processed carbohydrates (such as candy, juice, white bread, and chips), and trans fats commonly found in fast foods contribute to the inflammatory response characteristic of triggering asthma. Recently, the Journal of Asthma published a study of over 2,000 fifth-graders showing that the regular consumption of sweetened beverages greatly increased the children’s risk of developing asthma.

Dirty Air, Asthma and Social Justice

For the children of low-income families, food desertsfood swamps and air pollution conspire in their communities with a one-two-three punch that makes kids sicker, poorer-performing academically, and less physically active. Families under siege from a barrage of factors, when the air is dirty and when there is no access to healthy, wholesome food, cannot fight alone. Those of us concerned about the health of children and the welfare of our communities must band together to insist that policy-makers support strong clean air regulations for all.

Here are some of the ways to help:




On the Frontlines of Childhood Obesity (video)
Coming Soon To A Highway Near You: Asthma, The Disease
Junk Food: Fast, Cheap and … Not Quite as Cheap as You May Think

By Gina Carroll


.3 years ago

The quality of your blogs and conjointly the articles and price appreciating. bestindianfoodcatering

gary p.
gary p5 years ago

I live around 4 miles from a store, on a farm and my asthma has improved no end due to a better quality of air here. As for food in supermarkets, most of it is processed crap and avoiding them has also helped me overcome asthma.

all the best,

Gary Prescott

Biking Birder 2010 [supporting asthma UK]

Deborah P.
Deborah Pratt5 years ago

I live in a food desert, and I love it. A mile from the nearest road, four miles from a small town, seven miles from the big supermarket, which has large sections of "desert" as defined by you inside it! In other words the definitions you propose are applicable to only restricted areas that could easily be defined in other ways. Not that I argue with the links between nutritionally poor food/poor air quality/obesity/asthma.

Roger M.
Past Member 5 years ago

Indeed. Thanks for posting.

heather g.
heather g5 years ago

I'm aware of the 'food swamp' and 'food desert' terms. It appears that these problems relate to many people who prefer not to use their cars unnecessarily and for those who are unable to afford their own transport - both of whom prefer to walk to supermarkets. North America generally is way behind European countries where people are more conscious of the quality of their air, water and food and also prefer smaller cars.

Although there is nobody in my extended family who suffers from asthma, who is obese, suffers from heart problems or is generally unhealthy - these conditions started to plague me a few years after moving to Canada. It's like talking to a blank wall when I refer to oily particulate from a nearby road - but then my neighbours are also not educated about eliminating plastic bottles....

Dina B.
Dina B5 years ago

Interesting, you learn something new each day. This was my new education!

Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

Thank you for sharing

Jane R.
Jane R5 years ago

A food desert is when you live 1 to 3 or so miles from a full service grocery store?? I don't see it that way. If you live less than a mile away you are not living in a residential area, you live in the midst of commercial property. To drive 1 to 4 miles to a full service grocery store is nothing. I don't care to live within walking distance. I prefer a quiet neighborhood.

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Nicole Bergeron
Nicole Bergeron5 years ago

I use to live in neither as there was a local grocery center, but now I am both, i have to go 4 miles to get to the nearest food market (if chains can even be called that now a days as some have more other objects than food), and that one has high caloric, nutrient-poor foods every which way. Even their "fresh" foods are high calorie and empty nutrition until you get to the side of town on a Saturday, than you got the farmers market, expensive and sometimes not worth it (as they all seem to grow the same thing and keep the prices the same).