PHOTO: CHARLOTTE HOLMES

Food Deserts

Research shows that many Calgarians are lacking access to healthy, affordable food because they live in what’s called a food desert. According to the Government of Canada, food deserts are described as residential areas where there is limited or no access to grocery stores and other retail food establishments that provide healthy and affordable products.

More specifically, food deserts are defined as areas where there are fewer than three square feet of grocery retail per capita. Though, four to five square feet are deemed “desirable.”

A study done by the University of Alberta shows that in Calgary, there are only 3.33 square feet of grocery retail per capita downtown. In addition, a 2015 study was conducted that shows that only 20 per cent of Calgary’s population lives within 1,000 metres of a supermarket. Researchers agree that for a supermarket to be considered walkable, it must be within 500 metres, while the median minimum distance to a supermarket for Calgarians is 2,110 metres.

Do you live in a food desert, or are you within 500 meters of a major grocery store? Click here to find out!

An article from April 2020 lists the top 15 Canadian grocery chains based on family head counts, budget and healthy food choices. Of those 15, the top six available within Calgary were Sobeys, Safeway, Walmart, Real Canadian Superstore and No Frills. 

After Calgary Journal reporters mapped the locations of the top six grocery chains within Calgary, the data shows that areas of Calgary such as Inglewood, downtown and parts of the lower income Southeast such as Dover are lacking access to these grocery chains within their area. Whereas, there’s an increase in grocery store options on the outskirts of Calgary within the more suburban areas. 

With these shortcomings in food availability, could local grocers with affordable delivery options be the solution for Calgarians who don’t live within a reasonable distance to grocery stores?

Justin Schupp, an assistant professor of sociology at Wheaton College in Massachusetts who wrote his dissertation on food deserts in the United States, describes the solutions he’s considered in creating services or establishments to work around the lack of grocery stores.

“We could find ways in which those locations could become standardized places where farmers could bring their produce and leave it there to be sold over the span of several days or weeks,” he says, adding that “one of the things that they started to do are mobile farmers markets, which can help cut down any sort of lack of transportation issue, where you can actually bring the farmer’s market to several different spots.”

From Left to Right: Keith Hamer, Mike Brown, Sondra Sjoblom from Valley Direct Foods. PHOTO : VALLEY DIRECT FOODS

At-home delivery services

That’s exactly what some local grocers have been doing in other provinces across Canada. 

Valley Direct Foods is a start-up company that offers home delivery services for groceries in southern B.C..

The owner, Keith Hamer, says originally they only sold bulk amounts to restaurants and locals, but are now offering smaller deliveries to cities all across B.C. 

“We pay more attention to what our customers want and they want smaller cases of food,” he says. “So that’s what we’ve really transitioned into is being like a regular grocery store where people can go on our site, whether they want full cases or they want smaller quantities.”

Similarly, founded four years ago, Kootenay Farm to Folk, a local grocer based out of Kootenay, B.C., aims to work with local farmers to provide affordable and healthy food choices for their communities while providing both a storefront and delivery option.

One of the founders and current owner of this service, Rhianna Embury, says the lack of healthy food in their hometown sparked the idea to build Kootenay Farm to Folk from the ground up.

“We realized that there’s got to be a better way to get local food so we decided to approach local farmers and everybody at the farmers market, give them our business card and say, ‘Can we list your farmers market products on a website?’” she says. “That was four years ago and now we have a little grocery store market.”

Embury says due to an increase in sales during the pandemic, Kootenay Farm to Folk was able to offer free home delivery to customers throughout four different communities in British Columbia.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in a lot of our suppliers because we have a further reach than they do. So, we’re able to get their products to a whole bunch of different cities and people,” she says. “Especially with the market that we have, like an actual storefront, people can go and get their product seven days a week instead of just the one day at the farmers market.”

Despite the company’s growing success, Embury still believes it isn’t enough. 

“There has to be more places where your local farmers and your local people can bring their products and sell them. More people need to get on board with what’s local and say ‘Okay, I’ll sell your product for you.’”

Kootenay Farm to Folk delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to customers.
PHOTO: RHIANNA EMBURY

Higher costs, better return

One ongoing limitation that people find in farmers’ markets and local grocery retailers is the cost. Typically, these establishments tend to be more expensive than big-box supermarkets such as Sobeys, Superstore or Walmart. 

Noticing this in his own research, Schupp describes the importance of economic status on grocery shopping tendencies.

“People who maybe don’t have as much economic resources towards purchasing food might be able to buy things that they wouldn’t have,” he says. “It’s the way people would want to purchase food at a low cost grocery store because that allows them to stretch their food dollar further. It might afford them to be able to spend their money elsewhere as well.”

According to Canada’s 2020 Food Price Report, Alberta experienced below-average food inflation rates, meaning that supermarkets can keep costs low for Albertans.

But, Embury says local food retailers aren’t as expensive as most people think.

She explains that they buy products in bulk, much like Costco, to maintain competitive prices to big-box stores such as Safeway or Superstore’s organic sections and keep prices as low as possible.

“You can’t beat a local price or product, so we try to lower the cost as much as we can. We don’t have very many staff, we don’t have very many upfront costs, so we’re able to keep the prices down that way.” 

Embury also emphasizes that people have ideas in their head about high-cost farmers’ markets, which is driving people away from the idea of shopping locally.

“People aren’t aware and a lot of them don’t care because they think that it’s too expensive, but in the end, it benefits everybody,” she says. “It’s just healthier and it keeps the money in the community. It’s hard to get people used to the idea that instead of going to the big stores, you can shop [locally] and you’re supporting over eight different families instead of a big corporation.”

Infographic by Marin Peake-MacAlister and Gabrielle Pyska.

Hamer agrees that ordering local groceries online is more expensive than grocery stores, but not due to the products themselves. He says the costs come from delivering to people’s homes, much like companies such as Skip the Dishes. 

“Honestly, the way it’s going, people are willing to pay a little more to have that service where it’s delivered to their door,” he says. “Restaurants are having to tack on an extra 20 per cent to cover the cost of Skip the Dishes, but they’re huge because customers want the convenience of having the stuff delivered to their house.”

Having proper product

Another issue local grocers have expressed is the lack of farmers growing food and raising livestock in today’s society. Many who might be interested in starting up their own farms will need the support of not only the community, but financial support from the provincial and federal government in the form of agriculture grants in order to get started. 

Embury, whose business relies heavily on the production of local farmers, says that the government should make local farmers a bigger priority. 

“I think the government needs to look into just giving out more grants and more money to people that want to start up little farms so that we can get more local food,” she says. 

Schupp agrees with this idea, saying that governments should step in to offer grants in order to incentivize people to farm.

“The cost of becoming a farmer is astronomical, the cost of land is skyrocketing. And then to even take it another step to prioritize particular foods that are both culturally and nutritionally sensitive would be amazing,” he says.

Individuals within Alberta who may be interested in starting up their own local farm can apply for grants through a specified search engine. However, more will need to be done to improve farm production here in Alberta as funds surrounding agriculture received a $7 million dollar cut this fiscal year, with a total spending reduction of $26 million by 2023.

Despite the lack of funding, Embury hopes that people will continue to research local produce in their area, as well as find ways to support locally. 

“Look into what’s in your area, and what is available to you and use it because it’s an asset to you and to everybody. It’s less of a footprint and it’s helpful to everyone.”