“Food Deserts” in Canadian Cities Prevent Revitalization

Written by  //  November 21, 2011  //  Posts  //  Comments Off on “Food Deserts” in Canadian Cities Prevent Revitalization

“Food deserts” are urban areas with limited access to healthy and affordable foods.  Initial research has identified serious food deserts in Saskatoon, Kingston and London, while cities such as Edmonton and Montreal were found to have generally good food access.  Food deserts are often tied to low socio-economic income status and are associated with a variety of diet-related health problems. My interest in the concept has been sparked by some of my ongoing work on revitalization projects in downtown Regina, Saskatoon and Fort McMurray.  Efforts to attract affluent residents to live in new downtown redevelopment projects are being hampered by a lack of basic amenities – most notable of which is access to grocery stores within walking distance.  This series of articles will focus on the origin of these issues, and potential market and government solutions. Prior to WWII, grocery stores were primarily located at key intersections near or directly within residential neighbourhoods.  These small, family run, stores relied primarily on pedestrian foot traffic and a adjacent high residential density.  Walk through older Canadian streetcar suburbs such as the Annex (Toronto) or Strathcona (Edmonton) and you will quickly notice many corner houses have unusually large square windows fronting on to the street.  These high visibility locations were once neighbourhood grocery stores and were later converted into single-use residential buildings. Larger cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, appear to be fortunate in that remnants of this intricate local food distribution network continue to function today.  The photo at the top of this page is taken in 1930 at the corner of Davenport and Dupont in Toronto.  Today, the building no longer exists but a small scale grocery continues to operate.  Granted the “Food Depot” may lack the aesthetic charm of the former grocery store, but its functional role in the neighbourhood remains. The situation is less positive in cities such as Saskatoon which sustained long periods of slow economic growth.  Research work by the Saskatoon Health Region analyzed food deserts in the city due to their association with health conditions such as type II diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer – particularly for disadvantaged groups.  The locations of grocery stores were compared with the location of residents, walking distance times, and public transit travel times.  Researchers found that in many instances, fast food outlets were located significantly closer to residential populations than grocery stores.  The following “Food Balance Ratio” map compares travel time to grocery stores with fast food outlets.  The best ratio was 0.75, meaning local residents could travel to a grocery store 25% faster than the closest fast food outlet.  The worst ratio was 59, meaning it was 59 times longer to travel to the closest fast food outlet than the closest grocery store.  Currently, the average Saskatoon resident lives twice as close to a fast food outlet as they do to a grocery store. Source: Food Access in Saskatoon, 2010 Using these figures, the researchers identified primary and secondary food deserts in the city.  Downtown Saskatoon is identified as a secondary food desert, and the nearby Riversdale area to the east is a primary food desert.  In the mid-1980s, Dominion left their downtown location, followed by the closure of Extra Foods in 2004, and a short lived “Uptown Market” in 2010.  Today, multiple redevelopment projects such as River Landing, coupled with heavy government investment in cultural and outdoor amenities, are attempting to transform the downtown.  However, slow multi-family residential sales and an increasing amount of unsold inventory is threatening these initiatives.  In my opinion, the lack of a local grocery store in downtown Saskatoon is the single most important issue preventing the revitalization of the downtown. Source: Food Access in Saskatoon, 2010 In London, Ontario, Jason Gilliland and Kristian Larsen have conducted historical research on the creation of food deserts in the city.  Their 2008 article, Mapping the evolution of ‘food deserts’ in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961-2005 looked at the evolution of London’s food distribution network over several decades.  During this time period, the majority of small downtown and inner-city grocery stores have closed and followed affluent residents to the suburbs.  In 1961, the typical supermarket in London was only 850 square metres of floor area versus 4,000 square metres today. Source: Mapping the evolution of ‘food deserts’ in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961-2005, 2008 These changes in supermarket locations have had profound impacts on the percentage of London’s population with access to healthy foods.  Central areas of London are the hardest hit – in 1961, 75% of centrally located residents had supermarkets within 1km, but by 2005 this figure had declined to 20%.  Convenience stores now supplement some of this food shortage, but local research has shown that products cost on average 1.6 times more than the same products purchased at a major supermarket.  Considering these residents are some of the least affluent, this additional cost burden is significant. Source: Mapping the evolution of ‘food deserts’ in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961-2005, 2008

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Reurbanist is a multi-disciplinary firm that blends land use economics with urban planning and economic development. At its core, Reurbanist believes that great urban places that are compelling and vibrant must find success at both a fiscal and social level. Stronger cities and urban destinations translate into improved job growth, municipal tax revenue, and a higher quality of life for residents.

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