Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Newspaper Column - Grocery Gap

Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 21 April 2008.

Recently I opened a can of bamboo shoots from Thailand and I began to wonder about the vessel — the can. Canning was invented around 1810 after Napoleon launched a contest to find a cheap portable method of getting food to French soldiers, who were dying on the march for lack of good food. The inventor won a handsome prize. As for the soldiers, they eagerly opened the cans with their bayonets.

I prefer to buy local food whenever I can but, as bamboo shoots don’t grow in Saskatchewan, it was a good excuse to visit the Chung Wah Chinese Grocery on 20th Street in Riversdale. I can think of nothing more exotic to do on a weekday afternoon in Saskatoon than to wander the aisles of a Chinese grocery with its unfamiliar ingredients and wonderful smells. Afterward, I swung by Giant Tiger on 22nd Street for a big bunch of bananas and a tub of yogurt (for my morning Saskatchewan berry smoothie). And this leads me to Station 20 West…

Well, not literally, because Station 20 West is still a plan on paper (and an empty lot on 20th Street) that is rapidly evolving since the provincial government withdrew a commitment to give the project $8 million. It seems that one of the downfalls of the project was that, along with doctors, dentists and service agencies, the plan included a grocery store. Not a Chinese grocery with interesting and exotic ingredients, and not a general discount store like Giant Tiger with its section of bulk, canned, packaged and frozen foods. The grocery store at Station 20 West was to be a full-service co-operative grocery that would a) be in walking distance of city’s poorest neighbourhoods, b) offer a full range of fresh (and local) foods, and c) connect the dots between healthy food and good health.

A quick internet search will show that Saskatoon was not inventing the wheel with this concept. Many cities in North America are grappling with the issue of “grocery gaps” in their poorest neighbourhoods. In Louisville, Kentucky, the city formed a Food Security Task Force to address its “food deserts.” Pennsylvania created the Fresh Food Financing Initiative with $10 million from the state government. Troy, N.Y., started a mobile fresh food market with $500,000 from the health department. Toronto created the Food Policy Council back in 1991 to address the social and health costs that come with the absence of grocery stores.

In Chicago, researchers went block by block and measured the distance to the nearest grocery store. They found that the areas with the worst health statistics were the furthest from a full-service grocery store; the problem was even more pronounced when fast food outlets were closer than the groceries. The same patterns held true for rates of obesity. Now, couple that with a report by Saskatoon’s Chief Medical Health Officer comparing residents in Saskatoon’s poorest neighbourhoods with residents of the most affluent areas. People in poor neighbourhoods are 13 times more likely to have diabetes, almost twice as likely to suffer heart disease or stroke, have 1.5 higher rates of lung disease, are plus-three times more likely to die in infancy and 2.5 times more likely to die of any cause.

The author of the Chicago study writes: “… a food desert is the antithesis of progress, and the costs associated with living within one will be borne directly by those residents through their quality and length of life, and indirectly by the health care industry, by government agencies, and by others who take on the financial burden of pre-death treatments.” The report ends on an optimistic note—now that we see the connection, something can be done about it.

In late 2006, I was invited to join the board of CHEP Good Food Inc., which was one of the key partners in Station 20 West. I was asked because of my journalistic interest in healthy Saskatchewan-produced food. Since then, I’ve learned that CHEP has been a catalyst for many programs that bring healthy food to children, seniors and low-income families in Saskatoon. It’s a local success story. As a member of CHEP, I could rant against the government for axing the money to Station 20 West. As a journalist and a voter, I recognize the government’s right to follow its political agenda. However, the health of our community—and the costs born by the health system—are not a political issue. We are experiencing affluence at an unprecedented level and our poorest neighbourhoods deserve to benefit, too, not with handouts but with thoughtful community solutions that last a lifetime.

We must keep our eye on that prize despite the challenges. Remember this: it took 14 years to perfect the canning process in 1810, and another 48 years to invent the can opener.

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