Making the (food) deserts bloom

Local initiatives seek to promote healthy eating

North End healthy eating sign

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2014

As a dietitian, I'm in the business of food.

When strangers discover my chosen profession, most will ask a question like, "What's better? Butter or margarine?" or "What do you think about kale?" 

The nutritional composition of food is definitely important, but food is so much more. Food is about culture, comfort, fellowship, and perhaps most importantly, food is a basic human need.

Yet many people can't afford to eat.

The cost of healthy eating for a family of four in Winnipeg in 2011 ranged from $800 to $900 a month, according to a review done by a group of Winnipeg dietitians.

According to Food Matters Manitoba, a charitable organization dedicated to enhancing food security for Manitobans, this budget is simply not feasible for those who live on a limited income and can't easily access food. The result, according to a report released last spring, is that hunger and poor nutrition are an unfortunate reality for many Winnipeg residents.

Food security means that all people, at all times, have access to safe, culturally acceptable, and nutritious food for an active and healthy life. People experiencing food insecurity consume fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, milk products, and vitamins than those in food-secure households. This can contribute to poor growth and development. In fact, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure are more common in food-insecure households.

Compounding the problem of cost is the matter of access.

In some neighbourhoods, residents have little or no access to grocery stores and restaurants that provide healthy, affordable, fresh food. These areas are known as "food deserts."

Downtown Winnipeg is a prime example. The recent closings of Riediger's, Zellers, and Extra Foods have dramatically changed the grocery store landscape. As a result, families who have limited access to transportation are left to rely on the processed fare available at Giant Tiger, Dollarama, and convenience stores.

The North End is also considered a food desert. Major grocery stores exist on the periphery of the neighbourhood, and there is Neechi Common in the Point Douglas area. But, as in the downtown, people have difficulty accessing them and many corner stores in the community lack healthy options.

Where does that leave us? Conversations about grocery stores in the downtown will and should continue, but here are two exciting new community initiatives that are making a difference.

Food Matters Manitoba, for example, has launched an exciting new initiative in North End corner stores called "North End Healthy Eating."

The first part of this initiative are in-store signs identifying healthy options with accompanying recipes. They are hoping to not only let residents know where healthy food is in the community, but also make more of it available. If this pilot project is successful, we may see more "healthy eating" signs in more corner stores across the city.

Winnipeg FoodShare Co-op (WFC) is a not-for-profit community service co-operative that works with community hubs to improve access to healthy, quality, affordable food. It focuses on neighbourhoods where people living with lower incomes experience barriers to food security.

This summer WFC was involved with a new community market in the West End where lower-cost produce was available as well as items from local area bakers and crafters. This was the first-ever community market to take place in the West End and was created because there was a need in the neighbourhood for fresh groceries.

So what do I think about kale? I think it's great . . . just like all the other leafy greens.

But I also think food is more than antioxidants and vitamins, food is a human need. As a community, we need to support these initiatives and others like them. Through these kinds of actions, we can help make our city's food deserts bloom.

Lavonne Harms is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region. She is also actively involved with Food Matters Manitoba.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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