food desert, food swamp

A food desert is an area, often an urban one, with poor access to food, especially nutritious food and fresh fruits and vegetables. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from a 1988 Australian newspaper:

New Caledonia, surely more of a food desert than anything outside five kilometres from the centre of Melbourne.

This citation may be something of an outlier. It refers to the Pacific island of New Caledonia, not an urban area in a developed nation, and it appears some eight years before food desert began to be used in earnest. Plus its use of “more of a” and the lack of quotation marks around the term hint that it is a straightforward metaphor rather than a term of art.

The next citation I can find is from 1996 in the British paper The Observer:

Like thousands of other communities across Britain, [Tipton] had been transformed by the exodus of the big supermarkets to out-of-town greenfield sites into what the experts call a “fresh food desert.”

Here we have quotation marks, but the phrase is fresh food desert. The term is new, but not yet in its current form.

The next citation in the OED is again British, from the Financial Times of 13 March 1997, and we get the term in its familiar form and context:

Some localities have also become “food deserts,” where independent shops and street markets have closed and poorer citizens without cars have difficulty reaching the “cathedrals of choice” on the edges of towns.

More recently, the term food swamp has come into use out of recognition that food, in general, is available in such areas, but that fresh and nutritious choices are swamped by fast food restaurants and convenience stores. The earliest use of food swamp that I can find is from 2011 and New Zealand:

She found there was no supermarket in eastern Porirua and what she called a “food swamp” of unhealthy food shops. There were very little fruit and vegetables and healthier foods, grainy bread and low fat milk, were more expensive.

Months later the term appears in a major U. S. publication, The Nation:

Calling neighborhoods deserts may also reinforce the idea that poor communities have no resources on which to build and need to be rescued by some outside force, says Williams. Other terms have been proposed: “food swamp,” “grocery gap,” “food red-lining,” “food apartheid.”

And about six months later the term appears on the front page of the New York Times:

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert.”

The two terms demonstrate several common factors in the coinage and development of a term. Often there are early, independent coinages that are unrelated to later use. Terms are often in oral use within particular communities of interest, in this case charities and food banks, before they make it into print, and with the internet such communities can be global. And the metaphors underlying such terms are often adapted to more accurately reflect reality.


Hallman, Charles. “Getting Healthy Food to Those In Need.” Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. 24–30 Nov 2011.

Huber, Bridget. “Walmart’s Fresh Food Makeover.” The Nation, 3 Oct 2011, 24.

Jones, Judy. “The Bad Food Trap.” The Observer, 21 Jan 1996, 13.

Knight, Kim. “Hunger Pains.” Sunday Star-Telegram (New Zealand), 20 Feb 2011, C1.

Kolata, Gina. “Studies Question the Pairing of Food Deserts and Obesity.” New York Times, 18 Apr 2012, A1.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, Dec 2008, food, n.

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