I think most of us who are lucky enough to have plentiful access to food can remember the day they realized that this was not the case for everyone. For me, the tsunami of realization hit in waves: in childhood, when a girl in my class didn’t have enough to eat, on my travels when I saw true poverty, and upon moving to the US, when I noticed income disparities on a greater scale.
Areas with low supermarket access are known as “food deserts”, and they are as plentiful as ever in the age of farmer’s markets and online meal kits. I live in Philadelphia, and ¼ of people here struggle with food and hunger security. Many Canadians have the same problem, which can increase the likelihood of developing obesity or a chronic disease.
This is the case because of how people living in food deserts fill in the gaps in their diets, as many of these people have little or no access to a car or even public transportation. More food deserts mean more per capita expenditure at fast food restaurants. Affordable, healthy food options can be restricted or nonexistent. On average, mostly white neighborhoods have four times as many supermarkets as mostly black neighborhoods do.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project has spoken and written at length about the strategy of convenience. The degree in which we are influenced by convenience is staggering, no matter who we are. Think about how often you went to the yoga studio with the great Groupon deal that was a little too far away.
In addition, a small corner store can have prices upwards of 37% more than what it would cost for a suburbanite buying exactly the same product in a food oasis.
You may assume those who live in big cities don't have this problem - not exactly. The rising costs of housing and stagnant incomes have led to an increase in food stamps in both Toronto and Vancouver. Nutritious food may be nearby, sure, but that doesn’t make it any more affordable, a problem known as a “food mirage”. In Winnipeg alone, 60,000 people live in a food mirage situation, proving that opening more supermarkets is only one part of the solution. We need to find other methods of supporting income growth and unfortunately, food deserts can also be seen as resource deserts.
Numerous solutions of course have been piloted, including The Mobile Food Market in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which brings fresh, affordable food to their own food deserts. There are also bus stop farmer’s markets. The Gangster Gardener in LA, Ron Finley, began planting vegetables in the curb dirt beside his home. This small act slowly began a revolution. He was charged for gardening without a permit, but fought back, starting a petition with fellow green activists. His goal is to transform south Los Angeles from food desert into food forest.
Ron had an idea that was successful because he was a part of the community in which he was trying to implement the change. An outsider changing a situation he or she doesn’t entirely understand might not have the same effect.
In any case, there is no unilateral solution to food deserts or mirages. There are unique socioeconomic distresses to each one. There are unique people in each one. Yet we can all agree that in a time of foodies, food blogging and food trucks, it is unacceptable that some Canadians don’t feel like they have any options.
We all deserve a food oasis.