Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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Food Deserts

Food Deserts

Lack of Access to Quality Food
Many Canadians live in “food deserts”: neighbourhoods where residents have little or no access to stores and restaurants that provide healthy and affordable foods.1Imagine a frail older woman who has to carry a heavy shopping bag for many blocks on icy sidewalks or a single father who has to struggle aboard a crowded bus with his toddler and a load of groceries.2 The closer-to-home alternatives for these people—typically a corner store or a fast food restaurant—are understandable choices. Geographical constraints will inevitably impact our dietary choices and, ultimately, our likelihood of developing obesity or a chronic disease.

The original notion of food deserts grew out of government research on the distribution of grocery stores in the United Kingdom. Since then, several investigators have studied food deserts in the UK,3 in depressed American inner cities,4 and Australia. In Melbourne, Australia, Reidpath and colleagues found 2.5 times more fast food outlets in the lowest income neighbourhoods than in the highest income neighbourhoods.5

Food deserts can be found in Canada. In Ontario, Lister mapped food deserts in Toronto; these were defined as the spaces falling outside of restaurant and grocery store catchment areas (Figure 1).6 In Vancouver, fewer food stores were found in the poorest neighbourhoods.7

  • 1. Cummins S, Macintyre S. "Food deserts"-evidence and assumption in health policy making. BMJ. 2002;325(7361):436-438.
  • 2. Campbell MC. 2004. Building a Common Table: The Role for Planning in Community Food Systems. J. Plann. Educ. Res. 2004;23(4): 341-355
  • 3. Wrigley N. ‘Food Deserts’ in British Cities: Policy Context and Research Priorities. Urban Studies. 2002;39(11): 2029-2040
  • 4. Block JP, Scribner RA, DeSalvo KB. Fast food, race/ethnicity, and income: a geographic analysis. Am J Prev Med. 2004;27(3):211-217
  • 5. Reidpath DD, Burns C, Garrard J, et al. An ecological study of the relationship between social and environmental determinants of obesity. Health Place. 2002;8(2):141-5
  • 6. Lister NM. Placing Food: Toronto’s Edible Landscape. In: Knechtel J (ed.). Food. Boston: MIT Press, 2007. p.148-185. 6
  • 7. City of Vancouver. Policy Report: Urban Structure: Supermarkets in Vancouver. Vancouver: City of Vancouver; 1998.