Many people have heard of food deserts — low-income communities where there is limited or no access to healthy food sources. But Rachel Engler-Stringer, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is also concerned about “food swamps” — areas where the convenience stores far out number healthy food stores.
Engler-Stringer spoke to CBC Radio’s Saskatoon Morning about the harms of food swamps in Saskatoon and what can be done about them.
Where you find food swamps in Saskatoon
Engler-Stringer said Saskatoon food swamps are throughout the downtown core area, up Idylwyld Drive, and in the 33rd Street area of Saskatoon.
“In part because of where the arteries are, so where the larger streets are, and so the sort of commercialization neighbourhoods, we find in Saskatoon our lower income areas of the city have a much higher proportion of unhealthy food sources,” Engler-Stringer said.
Why these areas are food swamps
To figure out why these areas have become food swamps, Engler-Stringer said people need to look at the evolution of grocery stores.
The number of grocery stores per capita in Saskatoon peaked in the 1950s, then started to go down in number. At the same time the grocery stores per capita decreased, they started to increase in size.
In the 1970s, the number of stores in older parts of the city started to decrease compared to the number of grocery stores opening in the suburbs.
Engler-Stringer said this wasn’t just about profitability, but also about size and space.
“Car culture, in part, contributed to the desire for larger and larger grocery stores with more parking,” she said. “Where do you have space for big grocery stores and lots of parking? It’s the suburbs. It’s not the core of the city.”
Also keeping new grocery stores out of old areas is something called the Restrictive Covenant Law. It says that when a grocery store closes, the new owner of the land cannot open another grocery store in that spot.
What other cities are doing
Engler-Stringer said some cities have tax incentive programs to open healthy food businesses in under-served areas.
Other cities will sometimes donate an old bus to a non-profit that will turn it into a mobile grocery store. The bus will go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood selling fruits and vegetables.
How to prevent food swamps
Engler-Stringer said some cities are also trying ways to prevent food swamps.
Bylaws can be put in place around schools. Some cities no longer allow licensing for convenience stores within a certain area of schools.