More than a dozen metro counties have ‘food swamps.’ This is what that means...

ATLANTA — You’ve heard of food deserts, but now researchers are looking at a serious issue called “food swamps”— which is where communities are inundated with mostly only unhealthy options for people to eat.

Malcolm Bevel with the Georgia Cancer Center is studying how a food environment plays a role in different health issues, especially in lower-income areas.

“The only difference between a food desert and a food swamp are the types of foods that you have available to you. So, a food swamp is where you live more than one mile from a grocery store, and you have more pro-inflammatory, unhealthy food options,” Bevel said.

[HAVE A STORY FOR 2 INVESTIGATES? Submit your tip here]

Gas stations, liquor stores, and fast food make it more convenient to afford and choose unhealthy food. Bevel and his team broke down their research on a county level.

“If you’re residing in these counties that have bad food swamp environments or they scored higher on our system -- on our scoring system, you had a 77% increase, odds of having higher obesity, cancer mortality,” Bevel said.

A dozen counties across metro Atlanta have been flagged as being among the worst for food swamps. The rest of North Georgia still scored on the high end, above the 50th percentile.

Douglas County is one of a dozen local counties considered trouble spots. Bevel’s research echoes that of another study done on the neighborhood level by the American Cancer Society.


Daniel Wiese is a senior scientist in the cancer disparities research program. He explained the correlation between food swamps and cancer.

“In the neighborhoods where we have lower accessibility to healthy food stores, we also had a lower life expectancy,” Wiese said.

Being overweight is linked to a higher risk of getting 13 types of cancers including pancreatic, liver, and ovarian cancers.

Right now, the Georgia Cancer Center is working to improve access to healthy options for those living in food swamps.

“We have a micro-farm here at the Georgia Cancer Center,” Bevel said. “What we’re doing is we’re going to be growing some produce, including basil and mustard greens and butter lettuce and some kale.”

The micro-farm has its own LED lighting and water source. It can run as long as there is electricity and grow hundreds of pounds of food each year.

The goal?

“Give underserved populations access to healthy produce that they didn’t have before,” Bevel said.

Bevel hopes to partner with local farmers’ markets, food drives, and churches.

“The grocery stores don’t want to come in the neighborhoods. We’ll just take the produce to them,” Bevel said.

Bevel said the next step in his project is getting policymakers and other community leaders on board. Bevel said his research has been funded thanks to a partnership with Paceline.