Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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Food Deserts in Edmonton

Food Deserts in Edmonton

Smoyer-Tomic and colleagues undertook two studies of food deserts. In their first study, they focused on large grocery stores in Edmonton and compared access in 12 inner-city neighbourhoods with access in the rest of the city.1 They used census information about income, age, and vehicle ownership to identify needier neighbourhoods and residents most likely to have trouble accessing food—seniors and low-income Canadians. Supermarkets were defined as outlets offering dairy products, fresh produce and meats, and baked goods. The investigators used a street network approach to measured travel distances and a catchment area approach that identified supermarkets within 1 km of each neighbourhood’s centre.

Only a few neighbourhoods in Edmonton have supermarkets within reasonable walking distance—usually considered to be 750 m; a large number of neighbourhoods were found to have no supermarkets within a 1-km radius. (Figure 1). The authors also mapped areas of “high need” with low supermarket access (Figure 2). By doing this, they identified several urban food deserts—neighbourhoods with many low-income households and seniors, a lack of private transportation, and little or no access to affordable food.

In a subsequent study, Smoyer-Tomic and colleagues looked at access to fast food.2They defined fast food outlets as counter-service restaurants that offered predominantly processed and prepared-to-order foods. They found many more fast food outlets in neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of Aboriginal Canadians, renters, single parents, low-income families, and residents dependent on public transportation. Neighbourhoods with higher rates of poverty, renter-occupied housing, and single-parent households not only had more fast food restaurants, they also had fewer supermarkets (Figure 3). In contrast, fast food outlets were less common in areas with higher median income and more valuable dwellings.

While this study reveals reduced access to supermarkets in certain Edmonton neighbourhoods, it is important to consider some study limitations.3For example, ethnic food outlets can be vital to community members, particularly low-income recent immigrants, but these were not included in the analysis of food markets. Similarly, concession stands, sit-down restaurants, school cafeterias, cafes, and coffee shops were excluded from the analysis of fast food outlets. Whereas the first exclusion might exaggerate the problem of food deserts, the second exclusion might lead to understating the problem.

  • 1. Smoyer-Tomic KE, Spence JC, Amrhein C. Food Deserts in the Prairies? Supermarket Accessibility and Neighborhood Need in Edmonton, Canada. Prof Geogr. 2006;58(3): 307–326. **11**
  • 2. Smoyer-Tomic KE, Spence JC, Raine KD, et al. The association between neighborhood socioeconomic status and exposure to supermarkets and fast food outlets. Health Place. 2008;14(4):740-754.
  • 3. Holsten JE. Obesity and the community food environment: a systematic review. Public Health Nutr. 2009;12(3):397-405.