While it has always been food for thought, these landscapes are among the findings of a new series of papers entitled Retail Food Environments in Canada: Maximizing the Impact of Research, Policy and Practice, recently released in a special supplement of the Canadian Journal of Public Health.
While a “food desert,” an area that lacks easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store, is more common in the United States, current research indicates that in Canada “food swamps” and “food mirages” are more common. These are neighbourhoods with less healthy stores, mainly convenience stores or fast-food outlets or neighbourhoods where nutritious foods are available, but not affordable for its residents.
“The common understanding, due to the prevalence of U.S. research in this area, is to think in terms of food deserts,” said U of S associate professor Engler-Stringer, the supplement’s co-ordinator and an author on four included papers. “The research that we do have for Canada suggests the issues are different here. In fact, the research shows that many deprived areas have similar access to stores selling healthy foods, and that food swamps are more common in our urban areas. Food deserts do exist in Canada, but mostly in rural and Indigenous communities.”
For example, given existing Canadian research, the solutions for food deserts, such as creating incentives for grocery stores in underserved neighbourhoods, may not be as effective as solutions for food swamps like reducing the number of fast-food outlets through zoning regulations.
“These distinctions are important for Canadian policy makers to be aware of, to ensure appropriate solutions are implemented,” said Engler-Stringer.
In addition to signaling the need for research on food environments for rural and remote areas, where one in five Canadians live, the paper also indicates that no Canadian studies have been published examining food environments in Indigenous communities.
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