El-Chan­tiry says 90 per cent of the peo­ple in his ward drive, but he ad­mits not ev­ery­one can do so — par­tic­u­larly the el­derly, the sick, and teenagers.

Ottawa Magazine - - CITY BITES -

Car­leton, Varga-Toth says, lo­cals have to drive up­wards of 20 kilo­me­tres, to either Arn­prior or Kanata North, to find a gro­cery store.

Within cities, food deserts are de­fined as “low-in­come neigh­bour­hoods with only lim­ited ac­cess to fresh, healthy food.” (Neigh­bour­hood Study, a project by the Cana­dian In­sti­tutes for Health Re­search, de­fines low in­come as “in­come lev­els at which fam­i­lies or per­sons ... spend 20 per­cent­age points more than av­er­age of their af­ter-tax in­come on food, shel­ter, and cloth­ing.”) This study iden­ti­fied 14 low-in­come neigh­bour­hoods.

The idea of a food desert in the mid­dle of the city might seem strange, es­pe­cially in neigh­bour­hoods lauded for their con­dos and bou­tiques. But con­sider the bustling area of Lit­tle Italy and Chi­na­town, known to city of­fi­cials as West Cen­tre­town. Re­mem­ber when Loeb on Booth Street closed in 2006? Since then, this neigh­bour­hood, which the city es­ti­mates is home to 6,000 peo­ple, has been with­out a gro­cery store. Lo­cal con­ve­nience stores and spe­cialty shops ex­ist, but those tend to sell ex­pen­sive, non-per­ish­able foods and are spread out over many blocks; they also of­ten cater to par­tic­u­lar eth­nic­i­ties, which can limit the range of prod­ucts sold. This sit­u­a­tion af­fects the qual­ity of life for ev­ery­one, but es­pe­cially those whose av­er­age in­come is below $50,000 (that’s more than 50 per cent of West Cen­tre­town res­i­dents). And even if peo­ple can af­ford the food, the dis­tance and lack of va­ri­ety are prob­lem­atic for peo­ple with di­etary re­stric­tions, the el­derly, and any­one who sim­ply can­not af­ford the time to visit sev­eral stores.

In short, whether they are in ur­ban, sub­ur­ban, or ru­ral ar­eas, food deserts af­fect qual­ity of life. Home Eco­nom­ics With hous­ing prices on the rise and af­ford­able rental op­tions on the de­cline in down­town Ot­tawa, lower-in­come peo­ple are mov­ing to sub­ur­ban or ru­ral ar­eas, such as West Car­leton — which ne­ces­si­tates the use of a car to buy gro­ceries, likely negat­ing what was saved on rent.

More­over, food deserts in sub­ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas tend to lower prop­erty val­ues. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Detroit Fresh Food Ac­cess Ini­tia­tive: “Food deserts ... also de­crease the value of neigh­bour­hoods, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to at­tract new res­i­dents and de­vel­op­ers and low­er­ing the re­sale value of homes. Mar­ket re­search has shown that food deserts hin­der the mar­ketabil­ity of res­i­den­tial projects.”

Back in West Car­leton, coun­cil­lor Eli El-Chan­tiry disputes the food desert la­bel. He points out that there isn’t an ob­vi­ous cen­tre to the area. So, he asks, if you had a larger gro­cery store, “where would you put it? The prob­lem is ge­og­ra­phy,” he says.

As El-Chan­tiry ex­plains, the size of the ward (763 square kilo­me­tres) means that if you live on the ward’s ex­trem­i­ties, it’s more con­ve­nient to drive to Arn­prior or Kanata North to shop than to head into the ward’s cen­tre. In other words, if a gro­cery store were to open in Kin­burn or Carp, West Car­leton res­i­dents might still choose to shop else­where.

El-Chan­tiry says peo­ple have adapted to the lack of a cen­tral gro­cery store by pick­ing up gro­ceries on their way back from work. It’s not un­like the same adap­ta­tion that Wake­field­ers have made re­gard­ing gas.

West Car­leton is an in­ter­est­ing case study, but some of the is­sues this ward con­tends with also ap­ply to Ot­tawa’s ur­ban ar­eas. Does the ward — and the city — have ways to in­cen­tivize a gro­cery store to open?

El-Chan­tiry flatly says: “No. Nor should they. I don’t want the city to be in the busi­ness of open­ing busi­nesses.”

(I mused that the city didn’t have an is­sue with try­ing to at­tract Ama­zon to build a new of­fice here, but El-Chan­tiry re­buffed the com­par­i­son.)

In the end, the more the lo­cals are forced to adapt to their sit­u­a­tion by driv­ing dis­tances to buy gro­ceries, the less in­cen­tive there is for some­one to open a gro­cery store. And El-Chan­tiry says that most res­i­dents are sat­is­fied with driv­ing out­side the ward to get gro­ceries. Even if a gro­cery store were to open, there’s no guar­an­tee that lo­cals would change their shop­ping be­hav­iours to sup­port a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket. In fact, El-Chan­tiry says that food chains were ap­proached by BIAs in his ward, re­quest­ing that they open small satel­lite stores; he says the chains re­sponded by say­ing that there was not enough busi­ness to pur­sue such an en­deav­our.

El-Chan­tiry also sug­gests that shop­ping habits are chang­ing, es­pe­cially now that ev­ery­thing can be pur­chased on­line and shipped to one’s door. Of course, this means that re­li­able, af­ford­able In­ter­net needs to be avail­able in the ward. (Over in Wake­field, that’s not the case.)

It seems lo­cals do play a role in per­pet­u­at­ing food deserts.

It’s not un­like the gas sit­u­a­tion in Wake­field, where, some might say, it was the lo­cals’ habit of chas­ing cheaper On­tario gas that put lo­cal gas sta­tions out of busi­ness. (Que­bec’s taxes at the pumps are gen­er­ally higher than in On­tario, though some com­pen­sa­tion is given to pumps closer to Ot­tawa.) Deep Roots To im­prove her sit­u­a­tion, Varga-Toth founded Deep Roots Food Hub in 2016. Their goal? To build a cen­tral root cel­lar in the com­mu­nity that will en­cour­age lo­cal food pro­duc­tion and sup­ply con­ve­nience stores in the area with fresh fruits and veg­gies. In­ter­est­ingly, the big­gest chal­lenge was find­ing land within the ward. In­stead, Deep Roots set­tled on NCC’s green­belt prop­erty nearby.

The rea­son? “Peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand what it was or how it would work,” says El-Chan­tiry.

The city con­trib­uted funds to the project, but Varga-Toth ar­gues that per­haps their ru­ral needs were not as “well un­der­stood” as in other ar­eas of the city. She char­ac­ter­izes the city’s mind­set in this re­gard as “poverty of the imag­i­na­tion.”

“A par­a­digm shift needs to hap­pen with our city plan­ners,” says Varga-Toth.

Per­haps, but it’s up to res­i­dents as well. Learn from Wake­field’s mis­take: buy lo­cal.

Un­til the root cel­lar is built, Var­gaToth and oth­ers in her com­mu­nity re­main ma­rooned in a food desert. Asked whether she would pri­or­i­tize a store that sells a va­ri­ety of pro­duce and fresh food year-round as part of any fu­ture move, she replied, “Yes, it’s some­thing I would con­sider much more.”

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