Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 17 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editor: Brooke Mercaldi
Contributing Author: Gabriella Mickel [*]

Combating Food Swamps to Improve Equity and Public Health

In a previous blog, we discussed food deserts and various land use solutions to the lack of healthy foods in many low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Food deserts are neighborhoods where healthy foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, are not available in local stores. Food swamps are a corollary: neighborhoods where there is an abundance of food lacking in nutrition. These conditions prevail in neighborhoods occupied primarily by minority households. See Reports. For a history of land use practices that contributed to racial inequity in America, see our previous blog here. For a deeper explanation of this topic, see this from food justice scholar Ashanté M. Reese and, for a concrete example, an urban renewal program in Spartanburg, South Carolina that created a food desert for which the City apologized in 2020.

Food swamps are a public health hazard primarily because of their link to obesity. Researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that food swamps are a stronger predictor of obesity rates than food deserts. Obesity, according to the CDC, increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and may triple the risk of hospitalization. More generally, obesity is linked to impaired immune function.

There are several actions that local governments can take using their land use authority to mitigate the negative health impacts of food swamps:

Set minimum distances between fast-food establishments and community sites. Many municipalities set minimum distances from schools. Research has shown that students with fast-food restaurants near their schools ate less fruits and vegetables, drank more soda, and were more likely to be overweight than were students whose schools were not near fast-food restaurants. Arden Hills, Minnesota enacted a minimum distance ordinance. In Arden Hills, “drive-in businesses” and “fast food restaurants” are not permitted within 400 feet of schools, churches, public recreation areas, and residentially zoned property. In Detroit, Michigan, fast-food restaurants must be at least 500 feet away from schools.

Adopt zoning standards that cap the density of fast-food restaurants.

By capping the density of fast-food restaurants, municipalities can preserve space for healthy food options like community gardens, grocery stores, and even mobile vendors like food trucks and carts. The Arden Hills ordinance has a density aspect – fast-food restaurants must be a minimum of 1,320 feet from one another. The Town of Warner, New Hampshire has an ordinance that requires fast-food and drive-in restaurants to be at least 2,000 feet apart.

Require convenience stores and food trucks to provide more healthy food options. In Hartford, Connecticut, the zoning code requires twenty percent of the net floor area of any convenience store to sell fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, whole grain cereal, dairy products (excluding ice cream), and canned or dried goods without unhealthy additives. Boston, Massachusetts requires food trucks to provide at least one healthy menu option as a condition of receiving a license to operate. (Ordinance).

Zone to encourage food trucks, produce trucks, and mobile food carts to operate in food swamp neighborhoods. A good strategy for encouraging mobile produce is to define typical food trucks and mobile produce vendors differently to allow mobile produce vendors the flexibility needed to help mitigate food swamps. For example, New York City’s Green Carts program allocates 1,000 permits to mobile food carts that sell only fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods with limited healthy food access. Municipalities can also help by identifying semi-permanent sites for such mobile units near desirable, high-traffic locations like schools and transit hubs.

For additional resources, the Gaining Ground Information Database is free and features best practice models used by governments to control the use of land in the public interest. Please direct your search toward the Healthy Communities topic.


[*] Gabriella Mickel is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Student Associate at the Land Use Law Center.

Brooke Mercaldi is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.


The previous blogs in the series are listed here:

  1. Reframing Sustainability: Introducing the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
  2. Planning for Public Health: A New Beginning for Land Use Law
  3. The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19
  4. Novel Coronavirus Claims Implicate Age-Old Property Rights Questions
  5. State & Local COVID-related Emergency Powers: Individual Rights
  6. COVID-Related Land Use Regulations and Judicial Deference
  7. Mediation of Eviction Disputes May Hold the Key to the Survival of Small Businesses
  8. Using Zoning to Help Eliminate Food Deserts: A Few Steps Forward
  9. Urban Heat Islands and Equity
  10. Urban Heat Island and Equity: What Can Local Governments Do?
  11. The Recovery Lease: Preventing Evictions of Commercial Tenants During the Pandemic
  12. The Role of Hazard Mitigation Planning in Promoting Public Health and Resilience
  13. Hazard Mitigation Planning: A Case Study
  14. Complete Streets: Protecting Public Health
  15. Zoning and Lease Mediation as a Way to Retain Critical Small Businesses
  16. Segregation by Law and the Racial Inequity Pandemic



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