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Food Deserts

Promoting equitable access to food through policy and design

TEXT by Natalie Armstrong, Alison Lumby, OALA, CSLA, and Andria Sallese

There is an increasing awareness of the widespread socio-economic challenges of food deserts and food insecurity in our communities. As an industry, those of us involved in the planning and design of communities are seeing the rise of grass-roots movements taking action to secure their own sources of local, fresh, culturally appropriate, healthy, and affordable food. From guerilla gardening and community allotment gardens to organizations such as FoodShare, African Food Basket, and Greenest City, groups around the world are seeking the means and social supports to bring local, fresh, and culturally appropriate foods to their own communities.

We believe, however, the question we should be asking ourselves as an industry is what role can planners, urban designers, and landscape architects play in planning and designing food insecurity and food deserts ‘out’ of our communities? How do we address this issue systemically through planning policy, master planning, and design?

Pine Orchard Farms, King City. IMAGE/ Andria Sallese

The 2017 study “Food Deserts in Winnipeg” defines food deserts as geographic spaces, typically in urban settings, where residents have limited or no access to healthy food options with sufficient variety, at an affordable cost. In Canada, neighbourhoods which do not have access to good quality and affordable food (defined as being located in excess of one kilometre to the nearest supermarket) are often considered socially-distressed, and characterized by low average household incomes.

In large urban centres, food deserts are most common in the city’s inner suburbs. In Toronto, the inner suburbs include the former municipalities of North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke. Today these areas are home to a majority of the city’s Priority Investment Neighbourhoods (PINs) and immigrant and ethnic communities who rely on public transit or walking. In the post-war period, these areas were primarily planned for middle class families, and designed around an assumption of access to personal vehicles.

A 2010 study by the Martin Prosperity Institute found that in PINs, fresh food was often located a considerable distance away from where people lived, making it difficult, time consuming, and costly to access without a car. As seen in the map below, in these lower income neighbourhoods, grocery retailers are typically located at the edges of these communities, leaving the majority of residents in a food desert. According to the Martin Prosperity Institute, unable to easily access good quality food, those living in many inner suburbs are served instead by an army of corner, convenience, and fast food outlets that offer an assortment of unhealthy foods high in fats, sugars, and salts.

Crate-grown produce. IMAGE/ Andria Sallese

Similarly, a study by Canadian researchers at the University of Western Ontario found that not only did low-income residents of London’s inner-city neighbourhoods have poorer access to supermarkets than middle- and high-income residents, but the inequalities in accessing supermarkets had increased over time. A study of the United States (Mississippi, North Carolina, Maryland, and Minnesota) found a large proportion of grocery stores were located in wealthier neighbourhoods compared to poorer neighbourhoods. The results of the study highlighted that the locations of food stores and food service places are associated with the wealth and racial population in a neighbourhood. Food desert mapping in Toronto also illustrates that the distribution of grocery stores in Toronto is lower in PINs, where there are comparatively higher proportions of ethnic communities, than in neighbourhoods with a higher median yearly income.

Increasing food disparity is prevalent across a wide breadth of our communities facing similar socio-economic challenges. With the recent pandemic, supply chain challenges, and rising food costs, these factors have likely exacerbated the disparity between income and access to food.

Martin Prosperity Institute map of food deserts in Toronto by median household income, 2010. IMAGE/ Courtesy of WSP

Food disparity is not exclusive to urban environments. Rural residents often have to travel greater distances than their urban counterparts for food. Rural food deserts have been defined as places located farther than approximately 16 kilometres (10 miles) from a supermarket. However, the lack of transportation infrastructure in rural areas is a compounding challenge. With limited public or active transportation options, the distance to grocery stores can leave rural residents who do not own vehicles and who face financial or mobility challenges reliant on family members, friends, and others for their transportation or shopping.

In an American context, these rural food deserts occur most commonly in low-resource, low-income, ethnic minority communities and are associated with disproportionate rates of poor health outcomes and chronic disease. The factors that determine where supermarkets are located in Canada are similar to our American neighbours. It is important to recognize today that in planning and building communities, market forces, planning policy and zoning, in addition to demographics and income, are often greater drivers in the location of supermarkets than the needs of a community.

Toronto Food Policy Council “Food by Ward” asset mapping. IMAGE/ Courtesy of WSP

Access to public transportation systems and community supports are more often available in urban neighbourhoods than in rural areas and can help ease the burden of food insecurity. The Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC), a subcommittee of the Board of Health which advises Toronto City Council on food policy issues, is one such support organization. The TFPC works with the farming and community sectors, and actively promotes food system innovation and food policies. Using an interactive food asset tool, ‘Food by Ward,’ the TFPC has mapped the distribution of food assets across the City of Toronto. This tool allows residents and policy makers to not only easily locate the closest retail grocery store, but also food banks, community gardens, farmers markets, and other alternative food sources. Mapping the food network in this way can help inform evidence-based decisions related to food access and equitable distribution in a geographic area.

Much of the literature and community efforts focusing on food deserts and addressing food insecurity and disparity has been focused on more urbanized areas. This can be attributed in no small part to those grass roots community organizations who have developed means to provide their own access to local food, as well as organizations such as the TFPC who advocate on their behalf. These organizations have built access to political support and influence, and as a corollary, influence on planning policy, zoning, and design guidelines. In rural areas, having a smaller and more spread-out population, advocacy, and the ability to influence is often not as well established.

Backyard garden. IMAGE/ Andria Sallese

Policy & Design Solutions in Rural and Urban Areas
A stable agricultural industry is an essential part of Ontario’s long-term economic health and prosperity and a source for the provision of healthy, fresh local food for urban and rural areas. Provincial policies are key to maintaining and enhancing the geographic continuity of the agricultural land base in Ontario, and for promoting access to local, healthy food. Approximately one third of the province’s agri-food industry is based in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH), with 42 per cent of Ontario’s best quality farmland located in the region. Provincial Agricultural System policies support the functional and economic connections to the agri-food network and protect Ontario’s prime agricultural areas—the province’s most fertile areas for agricultural production—for long-term agricultural use, while enabling the agri-food sector to thrive.

Crate-grown produce at the 19th Avenue Farmer’s Market, Markham. IMAGE/ Andria Sallese

Underscoring the prime agriculture area provincial policies is ensuring these lands are protected for future generations, supporting farmers and growers in the area, as well as increasing family farm revenue by encouraging local farms to diversify or have value-added products and facilities.

Local municipalities and policy-makers play a pivotal role in protecting finite prime agricultural lands, and also in identifying the best food-related policies and practices for local communities in their official plans and in area planning.

An evidenced-based approach, similar to the TFPC’s ‘Food by Ward’ asset mapping and the Martin Prosperity Institute’s food desert mapping, can help policymakers proactively identify areas in need, as well as identify transportation gaps in the food system, especially in priority communities, and promote partnerships to address food gaps.

Crate-grown produce at the 19th Avenue Farmer’s Market, Markham. IMAGE/ Andria Sallese

Similar to the planning processes and studies which assess adequate access to community services and facilities (e.g., libraries, day care centres, and parks), access to healthy, fresh, and culturally appropriate food needs to be assessed, mandated, and even incentivized in the same way and incorporated into our planning processes, policies, and lexicon.

As urban designers, planners, and landscape architects, we need to promote creative and inexpensive solutions that empower communities to increase access to fresh food. Take for example the 19th Avenue Farmers’ Market in Markham. Seasonal fresh food is grown in abundance, not in the ground but in large plastic crates. Those same ‘garden crates’ act as landscape medians and landscape buffers in the market’s parking lot. The produce is then sold along with locally grown and/or sourced fruit and vegetables. In food deserts, could similar ‘quick build’ solutions be promoted to encourage seasonal access to affordable healthy food, and build community demand and ownership, without requiring extensive and costly infrastructure upgrades? Over time, could these measures become fundamental components of the design of our public and private spaces—enforced through policy and guidelines the way tree compensation, green spaces, and biodiversity are being mandated by many municipalities when considering planning applications?

Crate-grown produce at the 19th Avenue Farmer’s Market, Markham. IMAGE/ Andria Sallese

Critical to our thinking as planners, urban designers, and landscape architects is understanding the food conditions we create when undertaking a land use and master planning exercise, and in drafting long term policies, zoning, and design guidelines for infill and new communities, and the effects it may have now and in the future.

BIO/ Alison Lumby, OALA, AALA, APALA, SALA, CSLA, CMLI, has been delivering integrated landscape and urban design solutions for over 18 years. As Design Lead for WSP’s Landscape Architecture and Urban Design practice Alison works to advance performance based ecological site initiatives, and is passionate about creating generous places that improve wellbeing through context sensitive, inclusive, accessible, and timeless design.

Andria Sallese, RPP, MCIP, BES, MPA, is a Project Manager and Senior Policy Planner with WSP Canada’s Urban & Community Planning practice with over 17 years’ experience in land development, policy planning, public engagement and facilitation, and project management. Her work has previously been featured in Y Magazine and Accenti Magazine.

Natalie Armstrong is a Planner with Project Planner with WSP’s Urban & Community Planning practice with over three years experience in policy planning and public engagement and facilitation, including the creation and implementation of community engagement strategies and programs.

Crate-grown produce at the 19th Avenue Farmer’s Market, Markham. IMAGE/ Andria Sallese