Food Deserts in Canadian Cities

On CBC Radio’s The Point this afternoon, they are talking about urban grocery stores and it was mentioned that Saskatoon suffers from the phenomenon known as food deserts.

What a coincidence! I made a small presentation on the subject only a few days before the news broke of a food desert in Saskatoon, but hadn’t heard about it until just now.

A food desert is an urban area which has a dearth of accessible grocery stores. It’s important to qualify that statement with “accessible” because, for example, even though there are few grocery stores in the suburbs, most of the people who live in the suburbs own cars and can travel long distances for groceries.

People who walk or ride public transportation, on the other hand, feel the effects of living in a food desert acutely. This is a financial and health stress, because they have to make trade-offs between spending more for low-quality food (at local convenience stores) or spending more on transportation (like a taxi). Or worse still, buying both less and lower-quality food.

As far as I am aware, there have been only three full-fledged studies of food deserts in Canadian cities: Edmonton, Montreal, and London. (The Montreal and London studies are open-access, so you can check them out for free.) There are no significant food deserts in Edmonton or Montreal, but there is one in London. The Region of Waterloo has also taken a look at food access, if you are interested in looking at another map.

The trouble with food deserts is that there aren’t a lot of tools for cities to deal with the problem. Obviously, if cities had put the breaks on suburbanization years ago, we wouldn’t have so many grocery stores on giant exurban plots of land surrounded by massive parking lots. Since time travel isn’t an option, a short-term option is improving public transit between disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the city’s jobs and services, including grocery stores. In the long-term, cities need to encourage a more equitable distribution of grocery stores through zoning bylaws, along with improvements in downtown neighourhoods which increase density and make the area more attractive to grocery stores.

I made a quick and dirty map of grocery store locations in St Catharines (below) and found that most of the city is well-served by grocery stores, provided you can afford bus fare. Each bullseye indicates a supermarket, like a Sobeys or Zehrs, but not Costco, Walmart, or any speciality food stores. If you follow the bus routes out three kilometers from each supermarket (about a ten-minute ride) the only areas of real concern are Port Dalhousie and parts of West St Catharines. Port is mostly affluent but exceptionally far from any supermarkets, while the west end is poorer and could be much better served by buses than it is.

Still, compared to London, we aren’t in too bad shape.

grocery stores in St Catharines

(map modified from St Catharines Transit Commission)

Update: Kingston has a food desert too.


One response to “Food Deserts in Canadian Cities

  1. Pingback: Eating cheaply, eating healthy « Empire of Dirt

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