Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nourish food deserts

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The city's executive policy committee acted hastily in deciding it has no responsibility for the insidious problem of food deserts in the inner city and that there is nothing it can do about what it views as primarily a private-sector phenomenon. The closing of grocery stores in poor neighbourhoods may not be something that falls within the traditional duties of city hall, but that doesn't mean the municipality is justified in turning a blind eye.

The fact is the community looks to the mayor and council for leadership on serious challenges, particularly if it is affecting the health and welfare of citizens.

The city does not have to solve the problem itself, but it is responsible for understanding the issue and mobilizing other governments and community groups in the search for solutions, which do exist. The mayor must sound the rallying cry.

The problem itself has been well-documented. With the emergence of suburbs, power centres and shopping centres over the last 60 years, small, inner-city stores of all types -- banks, hardware outlets, shoe retailers -- began to decline and eventually close or relocate to greener pastures.

Food deserts exist in many parts of a city (there's still no grocery outlet in Waverley West and there may not be for a long time, if ever) but the difference is most households in the suburbs have one or two cars, while people in predominantly poor districts often are forced to use a bus, or walk.

As a result, inner-city residents have fewer food choices, and the prices are invariably higher in small, stand-alone stores, forcing those with limited incomes to choose higher-calorie, high-fat foods over vegetables, fruits and whole foods. In fact, that's why some inner-city retailers, much like stores on northern reserves, tend to carry more unhealthy, non-perishable products because those are the ones that are in demand.

As a result, residents are unable to consume a healthy, nutritious diet, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and a range of other problems. The children of such families are also likely to grow up with poor eating habits, perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Many inner-city grocers claim they closed because of poor sales, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were losing money. Another reason for relocating might be the opportunity for greater profits. It would be helpful to know more about this dynamic, since the answer might suggest some stores could be retained with minor incentives in the form of tax breaks or zoning rules that permitted more on-street parking.

The Zellers grocery in the downtown Bay store was forced to close, not because it wasn't doing good business, but because it was taken over by another chain, which decided not to renew the lease. The store, however, sold $8 million worth of groceries and dry goods, which clearly demonstrates there was a viable market.

If nothing else, the city and its agencies should be sharing that information with other retailers that might be quite happy to open a new downtown store with the prospect of brisk sales.

Solutions tried in other cities include the expansion of community gardens, green vendor carts (as opposed to hotdog stands) that sell healthy foods, farmers markets and food co-ops, such as Neechi Foods, which opened recently on Main Street.

New York City established a special commission to develop ideas, such as tax reductions, to deal with its own food deserts, and Winnipeg should at least be looking at a similar initiative.

In addition to long-term health problems, the issue is also one of social justice. In a country such as Canada, no one should have to walk for miles or travel long distances by bus to find affordable, healthy food.

The city should invite the province, federal government and social agencies to help study the problem and develop solutions. It doesn't have to cost a lot of money, but the savings in health and other costs could be enormous.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 8, 2013 A8

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