Smart policy can restore food deserts

A ‘food desert’ is an urban area where people face serious physical and economic obstacles to accessing healthy foods, especially without access to a personal vehicle.

Here in Saskatoon, we had a large food desert that was restored to sustainability by a co-operative grocery store. Now that it has closed after three and a half years of operation, healthy food access is once again a problem in Saskatoon’s inner city.

The Good Food Junction announced on January 14th that it would be closing its doors due to low sales. As part of a group of researchers and community organizations which have been studying the impacts of Saskatoon’s Good Food Junction since it opened in 2012, I immediately began receiving phone calls from the media asking me why the store failed.

For our research we went door-to-door in the surrounding neighbourhoods and asked people questions about how they access food. We wanted to know which grocery story they used most often, how they traveled to and from that store, whether they use any of the community-based food resources in the city, and the size and income of their household.

The first thing we learned was that of residents in the neighbourhoods surrounding the Good Food Junction, over a third have household incomes of less than $20,000, and more than half are less than $30,000. With household incomes this low, and given what we know about the cost of housing in Saskatoon, it’s likely that a large proportion of households in Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods are buying minimal if any food, let alone at the Good Food Junction.

We also studied sales data at the Good Food Junction over a one-year period. We found that a large proportion of sales were for less than $10, which is not enough to support even a not-for-profit store. Small purchases are consistent with low incomes and people having very little money with which to buy food.

Our analysis also showed those living near the Good Food Junction spent more on vegetables and less on meat and prepared foods than people living further away. This tells us the store was being used for the importantly nutritious foods they couldn’t buy anywhere else,  and not just to buy the same foods available in neighbourhood convenience stores.

"Many people in the neighbourhood are just too poor to shop there (or anywhere else)."

We also followed about 150 regular Good Food Junction shoppers for a year and asked them questions about their health, how they access food, and their household characteristics. We found 1 in 3 were ‘moderately food insecure’, compromising on the quality and quantity of food they were eating due to not having enough money. More than 1 in 5 were ‘severely food insecure’, eating less food regularly and sometimes skipping eating for whole days. This means that over half of the shoppers we studied were struggling with some form of food insecurity, much higher than the Canadian average of 8%.

Researching door-to-door we also asked them if they used community food resources. This includes charities like the Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre, Good Food Boxes and community gardens organized by CHEP, and many others. Almost 3 in 4 households used at least one of these community food resources, with some using up to 4 of them. More than 40% of households reported using charitable food sources such as food bank hampers and meal programs, another figure far higher than the national average of 3%.

All of this data put together tell us one of the main reasons for the Good Food Junction closing, is that many people in the neighbourhood are just too poor to shop there (or anywhere else). They are instead  having to resort to charity to feed themselves and their families. That should not be acceptable anywhere, let alone in a rich country such as ours.

If poverty is the real problem, then we need to increase incomes. There are at least a couple of different ways we can do that.

3654654.jpg1)      Provincially, we can work to ensure all workers are paid a living wage that reflects the actual costs of living in a particular community. This would mean workers can have one full-time job covering all of their basic needs, so they can contribute to their communities in meaningful ways.

2)      Federally, we can contribute to efforts to establish a Guaranteed Basic Income for those who are not employed. A Guaranteed Income would be similar to programs we already have for seniors and we have decreased poverty in that age group.

It would extend the income supports we give seniors to the whole non-working population in Canada, and there’s evidence to show that it would likely not be as expensive as we might think, partly because of savings in healthcare, social services and the justice system.

If we put these provincial and federal policy solutions into place then inner city businesses such as the Good Food Junction would thrive, inner cities would be much more vibrant economic communities and population health would benefit.




Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of our Upstream Think Tank. She has a doctorate in Nutrition and her research interests include community food security, food environments and food access, food system sustainability, health promotion, and community-based and participatory research. Dr Engler-Stringer is Principal Investigator on several studies including the Good Food, Healthy Families study which examines the impacts of the opening of a full-service cooperative grocery store (the Good Food Junction) in a former food desert.

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