The key to a healthy diet is more than just choosing nutritious food. Access to healthy food also impacts our choices. If a neighbourhood lacks a sizable and affordable food retailer, residents’ choices become limited. When residents also face transportation and/or income barriers, they can be described as living in a “food desert.” In Access To Food In Saskatoon’s Core Neighborhood, Florence Woods explores the experiences of 37 households in a Saskatoon core neighbourhood lacking a major food retailer. Through interviews and surveys, Woods ascertains where residents purchase their food and presents their concerns and difficulties in acquiring nutritious food.
The two main barriers to purchasing healthy food were transportation/distance and low-income. Slightly less than 60% of the study’s participants owned a vehicle, and of this group 90% regularly traveled 3 or more kilometres to purchase food. Having a vehicle allows one to travel outside the neighbourhood to stores with greater choice and lower costs, as well to purchase items in larger amounts to lower the number of shopping trips in a month. For those without a vehicle, shopping trips were conducted by bus, taxi, foot, bicycle, or having a friend / family member drive them. Those options have many limitations, from the amount one can purchase and carry home to lack of convenience, from the impact of weather conditions to higher transportation costs. As a result, those without access to their own vehicles tend to shop more often for smaller purchases, pay higher transportation costs, and shop at nearby neighbourhood convenience stores, which tend to be more expensive and have lower food quality, particularly in terms of fresh produce.
Thirty-two of the 37 participating households were classified as lower income (i.e. median incomes between $10,000 and $20,000 annually). While this affected vehicle ownership (and its related limitations), it also influenced where these households shopped for food. While those with lower incomes spend less weekly on food than those with higher incomes, they spend a greater proportion of their disposable income doing so. Lower income households also tend to frequent both large food stores and the smaller convenience stores, whereas those with higher incomes also visited specialty stores or purchased locally grown food. Lower incomes also tend to be caught in a “feast or famine” purchasing cycle, stockpiling staple foods when money is available and going without in between. However, this limits the regularity of fresh produce in the household. Many households compensate for this by sharing food with neighbours and friends, maintaining gardens, and participating in community food programs.
What Woods’ study demonstrates quite compellingly is that when retail food stores leave core neighbourhoods for the suburbs, they compound the problems of those with limited incomes. Not only does it make it more difficult to purchase food in general, it greatly limits access to nutritious fresh produce. What this suggests is that city planners should explore means to both attract core area grocery stores and improve public transportation for those who need to travel greater distances to purchase food