A food desert is an area where access to affordable, healthy food is restricted because residents do not have a grocery store within a convenient travelling distance.
In a city, neighbourhoods 5km or farther from a supermarket, grocery store, garden or market may be considered food deserts. In rural settings, the radius can be much greater.
A community is food secure when all residents have physical, social and economic access to nutritious food. However, living in a food desert doesn’t always determine whether someone is food insecure.
Factors such as transportation, mobility and income also play a role in determining food insecurity within food deserts. Many people do not own a car, and public transportation can pose a challenge for those with demanding schedules or mobility reasons.
Without close access to grocery stores, markets or gardens that offer healthy foods, many people living in these areas must rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants as their main food source.
Inability to access healthy foods, causing a reliance on convenience foods, can negatively impact a person’s health, increasing the risk of various issues including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and depression.
As well, prices at convenience stores are on average 1.6 times higher than grocery stores, worsening the barriers of accessing healthy food.
Food security can be directly tied to income. If a person lives in a food desert, but has a high enough income to afford a car, they may be able to purchase healthy food even though it isn’t in a convenient location. But for those with lower incomes located in food deserts, accessing nutritious food is that much more challenging.
In 2016, the Canadian Institute for Research on Linguistic Minorities (CIRLM) released a document titled ‘Food Security and Insecurity in New Brunswick: Portrait, Challenges, and Perspectives’. The document noted that the socio-economic environments that people live in can influence their food security, mainly because of local income disparities and varying access to enough healthy and nutritious food.
A report by Nina-Marie Lister, ‘Placing Food’, focused on food deserts in Toronto. The report found large gaps in the “urban fabric” where it is difficult or impossible to find a grocery store or supermarket within walking distance.
The report found that some of the poorest areas of Toronto are also those of the highest ethno-cultural diversity, populated by newcomers struggling financially, emotionally or culturally. These areas were greatly challenged by unaffordable and inaccessible healthy food in their neighbourhoods.
New Brunswick has a large rural population where distance and geographical isolation can be an obstacle when it comes to food services. A map by Our Food SENB highlights the distance that residents of southeast New Brunswick have to travel to access food, showing the difference between rural and urban areas. While those living in rural areas generally must travel farther, food deserts exist in more urban areas too.
The community of Marysville, on Fredericton’s north side, was previously considered a food desert, as the nearest grocery store was farther than 5km from most residents. This was one of the main inspirations for the creation of the Marysville community garden started by NB Community Harvest Gardens in 2012.
Community gardens, markets and new stores are one way to address the challenges caused by food deserts. Other initiatives such as mobile food markets have also been used as a solution to combat food insecurity in food deserts.
The Mobile Good Food Market was started in Toronto as a way to face economic and geographical barriers to accessing healthy and culturally appropriate food. It acts as a travelling market to supply fresh, nutritious food to those who have trouble accessing it.
The term ‘food desert’ sounds like a bleak and barren region – but in reality, it can be a flourishing space that is simply too far from a grocery store or market.
Some people challenge the term as a whole. It was created with good intention to identify areas that have less convenient access to healthy food, but in reality, deserts are actually food systems that have fed people for generations.
Valerie Segrest is a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, working as a Native nutrition educator who specializes in local and traditional foods. In the ‘All My Relations’ podcast by Matika Wilbur and Adrienne Keene, Segrest is featured in their food sovereignty episode, where she touches on the term ‘food desert’.
“The power of that phrase ‘food desert’ implies lack, it implies not abundance… If you talk to an Indigenous person from the desert, desert implies a sustaining life force, it implies all of these food systems and life ways that are just so different than the mainstream conception of what a food desert is,” she said in the episode.
While the concept we try to capture with the term ‘food desert’ is an important one, the term we use does not accurately represent the situation. The misuse of the word desert in this situation makes food sovereignty feel impossible. By describing an area as such, it may discourage people from growing their own food, foraging wild plants, and exploring the land on which they live.
Ensuring food security in the meantime requires more than extra grocery stores. It requires a livable wage for all New Brunswickers, the supported mobilization of communities to increase self-sufficiency, and the understanding that this land will take care of us, if we take care of it.
Hannah Moore is a recent graduate from St. Thomas University, currently working as a Food Security and Regenerative Farming Reporter for the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick.