Food deserts and swamps in Flanders – Belgium

Guest Article by Stefanie Vandevijvere, Senior Scientists Nutrition and Health, Sciensano, Belgium

Flanders has more and more neighbourhoods with an abundance of unhealthy food (food swamps). Elsewhere, adequate access to healthy food is the problem (food deserts). This makes it increasingly difficult to promote healthy eating habits in Flanders. 

What we eat is greatly influenced by the food supply in our environment, our so-called “food environment.” The food environment has changed significantly in recent decades. 

Flanders has a high density of supermarkets. As a result, the number of food deserts -neighbourhoods where it is difficult to find all the foods needed for a healthy diet- is relatively limited in Flanders. Nevertheless, the number of food deserts in residential neighbourhoods with a relatively large number of elderly people increased between 2008 and 2020. In 2020, 2.8% of the population lived in these areas. The elderly are more likely to face mobility limitations, making it more difficult for them to access healthy foods. With an increasing ageing population, this trend may continue in the coming years. 

More and more neighbourhoods have become food swamps; neighbourhoods with an abundance of unhealthy food compared to healthy food. Food swamps are now ubiquitous in Flanders. In 2020, 88.2% of the population lived in a neighbourhood where “unhealthy” outlets dominated. This corresponds to 74% of the residential area in Flanders. The temptation is therefore strong to choose the unhealthy over the healthy food options.  

Both the expanding unhealthy food swamps and the trend that more and more elderly people are at risk of ending up in a food desert are concerning. Interventions to structurally improve the Flemish food environment are therefore urgent. And in doing so, attention must certainly be paid to the most vulnerable groups. This requires a clear regulatory framework that enables action at both local, regional, federal and European level to improve the food environment and that clarifies the jurisdiction of the different levels of government. 

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Disclaimer: the opinions – including possible policy recommendations – expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EPHA. The mere appearance of the articles on the EPHA website does not mean an endorsement by EPHA.

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