Lack of a close-by grocery store creates ‘meals deserts’ in eight Edmonton neighborhoods

Margaret Seewalt knows the inconvenience of living in a neighborhood without a nearby supermarket.

As a blind person, she can’t drive, so if she can’t find a ride, she has to take a bus with her groceries or carry them.

“It’s the distance. Everything is a trek. I just shlep them home in a backpack,” the Inglewood resident says.

“I have lived in many cities. Walking was part of city life, but within a block or so you had a meat place and others.”

Her community is one of eight Edmonton “food deserts” — Alberta Avenue, Blue Quill, Boyle Street, Casselman, Inglewood, Malmo Plains, Thorncliff and Tipaskan — identified in a study by University of Alberta researchers.

These are areas without a supermarket within one kilometer of the neighborhood centre.

As well, households in these neighborhoods have lower-than-Edmonton-average income and vehicle access, along with higher-than-average population density.

“Access to healthy, nutritious food generally contributes to good health conditions,” says Feng Qiu, an assistant U of A professor in the department of resource economics and environmental sociology who worked on the paper.

“This is one important reason why we want to explore the food environment for individuals and households.”

American studies have determined that poor inner-city areas have the worst access to a decent diet.

That’s not the case in Edmonton, where low-income districts are generally closer to supermarkets than wealthier ones.

This is partly because richer residents are more likely to have vehicles, so they can drive longer distances to shop.

Another factor could be that American food sales are dominated by a few mega-stores such as Costco, which tend to be located in the suburbs, Qiu says.

In Edmonton, there are a greater number of mid-sized chains that operate closer to the city center.

“We still have relatively not-that-giant supermarkets like Safeway,” she said. “It’s probably still profitable for them to locate in a downtown area.”

As well, farmers’ markets and community gardens make up for the lack of nearby supermarkets in several of Edmonton’s food-desert neighborhoods.

Although the U of A study counted 17 approved farmers’ markets and 61 community gardens in Edmonton, Qiu cautioned they won’t solve all food access problems.

Most are located in areas near supermarkets, probably because that’s where the customers are, they tend to be seasonal and prices are often higher, she says.

Seewalt, who has been working the soil since she was a child, co-founded Inglewood’s Blue Gecko community garden on 116th Avenue three years ago partly so she’d have fresh vegetables.

They have 10 beds for the six or seven families involved, growing such delights as kale, tomatoes, peas, beans, lettuce, herbs and cucumbers.

Finding people willing to put in the time needed for upkeep is a tough row to hoe, and Seewalt doubts the garden makes a big difference to fruit and vegetable consumption across the entire neighborhood.

But she’s doing her bit. She waters wilting plants for fellow gardeners and has been known to hand out surplus tomatoes to strangers on the bus.

“I tell people ‘If you want rhubarb, pick rhubarb, or pick raspberries,’ ” says Seewalt, who preserves some of her produce with a dehydrator.

“There’s no taste in food in grocery stores … The garden supplies me with everything. I don’t buy a bean, I don’t buy a pea. Whatever I don’t use, I harvest and freeze (like) our parents used to do.”

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