The pandemic has no doubt worsened food insecurity for Canadians. It has also exacerbated daily issues for people living in urban food deserts.
Canada is known for having a robust national food system that delivers quality and affordable food on a large scale. However, our food is not always distributed equitably across the country–from province to territory, town to city and even neighbourhood to neighbourhood.
Food deserts: where the city’s poorest and most vulnerable are furthest from healthy affordable choices
“Food deserts” describe areas that are void of places to buy food that is both affordable and healthy. They appear in cities across the country; urban geographers have mapped them in cities including Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver.
Sadly, food deserts often appear in central lower-income neighbourhoods. In these neighbourhoods, the low cost of rent coincides with the fact that the only food options within a reasonable distance and price point are corner stores and fast-food restaurants. And of course, neither option alone can support a healthy diet.
Low income is one of the strongest predictors of food insecurity for Canadians, and food deserts show that the money a family makes doesn’t just determine how much they can pay for their groceries, but also can decide how far they must travel for healthy and affordable options.
Because of all of these factors, food deserts are an issue of food security, economic inequality, health, and food justice for Canadians.
Poor and arguably short-sighted city planning is a culprit behind food deserts
Geographers know that there are many nuances to the physical and financial barriers that people face in food deserts between Canadian cities. One root of the problem is poor city planning and suburb- and car-centric design.
In recent decades, as suburbia has boomed, so has the development of shopping supercentres at the edges of cities. These supercentres are the perfect locale for cheap and affordable grocers (think Walmart, Superstore and Costco) to set up shop.
Supercentres cater to those living close by, or the time to commute for their groceries, and are almost exclusively accessible by car. People who rely solely on city transit, bike or even foot are at a distinct disadvantage.
How has COVID-19 made things worse?
Bulk buying and apocalyptic panic
Early in the pandemic, newly coveted goods like toilet paper, masks and hand sanitizer were flying off the shelves at Costco and Superstore, as were canned and dry goods.
Bulk panic buying wasn’t as easy for people living far from the stores, without cars to fill to the brim. By spring, food security-related stories were surfacing across the country about the struggles people faced in participating in this new and aggressive approach to shopping.
Although people are less inclined to panic buy now and our supply chains have changed to meet demand, this is an issue to anticipate as we enter a possible second pandemic wave.
Changes to transit and business schedules
Some of the measures municipalities took to reduce spread included cutting transit routes and altering schedules.
Grocers also modified their hours to reduce contact spread. Together, these measures made it more difficult for people who rely on transit to plan their routes and shop safely by creating a narrower window of time in which to do their shopping.
As businesses and cities return to regular schedules, people still risk exposure when travelling for groceries. Seniors who are regular transit riders can feel especially vulnerable and may be reluctant to risk a bus ride for their groceries; they may resort to walking long distances carrying their groceries which could mean purchasing less and going more often.
Solutions: reframing how we think about food and agriculture can be an initial step to bringing healthy and affordable food to all neighbourhoods
When we think of food as a right, rather than simply a commodity for trade, we see the imperative for building sustainable and equitable food systems. Immediate changes to planning policy that bring healthy and affordable grocers into food deserts can have lasting and revitalizing impacts. Organizations like the Leftovers in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg redistribute food from participating businesses to people who are vulnerable and in need, all while diverting food waste.
When we understand that agriculture can be an activity for all and not just farmers with vast amounts of land, labour and capital, we can get more creative with our solutions. As evidence suggests, many neighbourhoods are being transformed by community gardens. These gardens may be managed by a city government, as is the case in Winnipeg, or organized by local community groups and organizations.
In May, Food Secure Canada released a food policy action plan for the COVID-19 context. The plan includes a call to “build resilient ecological local food systems that diversify chains, revitalize communities and ensure greater access to healthy and fresh foods.”
They call on Canadians to advocate for the action plan and reach out to Members of Parliament to implement its calls for a public-interest based approach to food policy. Information about how you can advocate is on the action plan web page.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.