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Improve the Built Environment to Promote Food Access in your community: Questions, Responses and Helpful Links from our online discussion

By Kyley Alderson, HC Link

builtenvirofoodaccessheaderOn April 13th 2017, HC Link consultant Paul Young from Public Space Workshop joined with 50+ participants to share ideas, resources and information to help us improve the built environment to promote food access in our communities.

This online discussion focused on the physical/built environment, which is one key component of the overall food environment. Research and our experience shows us that the built environment can affect food access. There is a distinction between programming for food access in contrast to providing physical space (e.g. a municipal parking lot available for a food market) which can then support programming.

Below, we are sharing the questions that were asked, responses from Paul and participants, as well as helpful links and resources. Feel free to scroll to questions that appeal to you, and don’t forget to check out additional resource links at the bottom of the blog! If you have any remaining questions, or want clarification on the information provided, you can email Kyley at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Poll 1.

The discussion began with a few poll questions to get participants thinking about how the built environment can affect food access–

How close are you to your healthy food store where you regularly shop?
Is your community designed with food disbursed throughout it or is it located in one area of town?
Some communities are disproportionately affected by lack of access to healthy food. For people in your community that may be on fixed or low income, check all that apply. (Options included healthy food stores within walking distance, having food banks, community kitchens, or food markets nearby, and having more unhealthy vs healthy places nearby).

After the poll the discussion was guided by questions submitted by participants.

Questions and Reponses

1. What is a food swamp? What is a food desert? How can we identify where there is a need in my community?

  • Food Swamp – areas with more fast food and unhealthier food options

  • Food Desert – areas with limited healthy food options

  • Taking a geographical perspective on food access – you can map out food resources (healthy and unhealthy) to see where there is a need in your community.

  • Transportation is a key issue for food desserts.

  • Working with planning departments, you can look for ways to incentivize grocery stores to come into the community.

  • Zoning – (e.g., Toronto’s Residential and Commercial or RAC zoning). Toronto has been experimenting with this and looking for ways to incorporate shops into the bottom of higher apartment residential buildings. Planning departments have started to open up this discussion – to look at introducing mixed land uses and incentives for shops to be located there (in areas where there are food desserts).

  • Toronto Public Health/ Food Share – Pop up markets and mobile food markets – having a market on a regular schedule to bring food into the community.

  • Healthy Corner Stores Initiative – Toronto Public Health has piloted a program to encourage convenience stores to sell some healthy food options.

2. What strategies can you suggest to reduce food swamps? At a policy level, when an area is zoned for commercial how do you control what types of food outlets are approved?

  • There is a chain of agreements that fall into place – planning departments can have some influence in this and can work with developers in early stages when tenants are determined.

  • Example - PAN AM games village (now the Canary District) in Toronto – they had an influence over what types of establishments could lease store front locations. There was a restriction on chains (although there could still be independent unhealthy shops), but that is example of influence.

  • Still early days on working with developers on this.

  • Montreal and NYC seem to be leading the charge on this.

Participant shared:

  • Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit collaborates with the planning department and we are invited to pre-cons with the planners. We attend and then try to educate the developers about the benefits of healthy foods vs. risks of unhealthy foods, or highlight they are close to a school so we don't recommend fast food/convenience store. They don’t have to listen to our advice but many of the developers are interested and do take our suggestions.

3. In rural areas, where there is limited/no public transportation, do you have any suggestions for how people can access food (whether through grocery stores, farmers markets, etc.)?

  • One strategy - Work with planning department to get food stores to locate near the downtown – where people are living and where transit may be connected.

  • There is a current trend to locate retail by highways – this makes it very difficult if you don’t have a car. Speak with your planners.

  • Strategy – connect with farmers.

    • Look for opportunities for Good Foodbox model.

    • Community shared agriculture (CSA)– where there are a series of drop spots where people can pick up produce at a location that is easy/in close proximity to where they are living.

    • Farm gate retail – where farmers can bring produce into town, such as a weekly market, or set up stand/money box at the end of their driveway (may need access to car still for this option).

    • Shuttles and Ride Sharing – organize weekly trips to grocery store and share transportation costs. Some agencies might have access to a shuttle bus – might be a way to connect pick up and drop offs to food stores.

Participants shared:

4. What resources/education documents exist to assist in enabling stakeholders and decision makers to understand the impact of transportation on food access?

  • Maps can help – you can start to see where concentrations of food stores are and see where populations of higher need are living, and calculate the distance between the two. You can layer in information about the transit system and see where they are/are not connected.

  • Food By Ward – connected to the work of Toronto Food Policy Council. They have produced a number of maps that serve as a good model for mapping out resources (including community kitchens, markets, food stores, etc.)

  • Toronto Urban Growers are also doing mapping work to show where food resources are located.

  • Mapping helps to point out needs and gaps.

  • Housing and Transportation Index – looks at cost of housing and transportation combined. We might think we have affordable housing, but do we when we consider transportation in car dependent locations?

  • Shuttles, cab sharing, changing a transit system to connect higher need communities with food stores can be explored.

  • Working with planners and developers to bring in healthier food stores – real opportunity with new developments especially.

5.How can you gain public or political support for investments in the built environment as they relate to food access?

  • Drawing on experience at the South Riverdale CHC– They started a food working group with a wide representation of stakeholders. A working group is foundational for setting up strategies to address local challenges.

  • A working group adds credibility when speaking with decision makers, local elected representatives – to advocate for change.

  • Mapping – Paul is currently making food (and recreation) maps that list food resources within a 2 km radius around schools in Toronto’s tower neighbourhoods. Maps have icons for a variety of resources, e.g. – Farmers markets, community kitchens, etc. When decision makers see there is no icon on the map for one of the resources (food markets for example) they might begin to think – we don’t have this and we should. Maps are helpful and compelling tools for pointing things out to decision makers, especially food desserts and food swamps.

Participant shared:

  • In my experience, one needs to provide clear evidence to help people understand what the problems are and, especially, what the problems are not (e.g. in Toronto "food deserts" are not a big problem, but "food swamps" are). Then being very clear on potential solutions and what you need from decision makers to realize it. Precision and clarity is not something that's been a priority among public health actors but we need to get better at it.

6. How do you evaluate success/use of map by public?

  • Just in process of doing this with the school maps - sending out survey to teachers, asking if they are aware of the map and if they are using it in the classroom, etc.

  • If maps are available online – you can look at how many people are downloading the map from your website.

7. What criteria, resources or standards could be used to establish what is deemed a healthy vs an unhealthy food outlet?

  • Dieticians can visit each store and do an analysis on what is sold there. For the school maps we are relying on their expertise and their criteria to tell us whether it is a healthy food store or not and the percentage of healthy/unhealthy food in the food outlets.

Participants shared:

  • Developing a food charter as a first step to incorporating food access and influencing the food environment could be useful. Food charters could be the basis for food strategy and food policies. Find out more about Toronto's Food Policy Council here: http://tfpc.to/

  • In Toronto we created definitions of "healthier" and "less healthy" food outlets that we applied to public health inspection data as part of food envir't mapping. It's meant for use as an analytical tool, not in any way as a public designation. Happy to share that approach with anyone.

Poll 2.

Before moving on to further questions, we asked two more poll questions to get participants thinking about how land use planning policies might be affecting the built environment and its effect on food access.

If you have any new developments where you live, does the new community have shops (including food stores) located near homes (within walking distance)?

  • Development patterns are changing. We are coming out of an era where we put all the residential areas in one part of town and all the retail in another – which made us very depending on driving.

  • More recent developments have started to incorporate retail on ground floor.

  • Still a lot of urban sprawl going on.

The Provincial “Places to Grow” plan is in place to protect farm land and natural features in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Has your municipality set out land use policies in the Official Plan to protect agricultural lands?

  • Most municipalities have an urban growth boundary – a boundary line that development is permitted to occur within to prevent sprawl and preserve farm land.


8.
What municipal policies have shown impact for improving access to healthy foods in a community and/or at the neighbourhood level?

  • Growth boundaries to prevent sprawl and preserve farm land

  • Mixed-use zoning – to encourage a retail and place to work in the community

  • Supporting existing downtowns – bring food shopping into downtown where people are living. Look for ways to support this in planning policies.

  • Story in The Star a few years ago – a couple moved to downtown Milton to be closer to shops and leave car at home. But as development unfolded, large format retailers (including food stores) were located on the outskirts of town and the downtown became more of a boutique retail area. Couple had to use the car to get their everyday shopping needs. Policies that enable new retail areas outside of existing communities can have an impact on food access.

  • Residential Commercial Zoning. Communities can introducing retail (even small scale convenience) into residential areas that don’t have any retail currently.

  • Municipalities can also introduce policies to enable community gardens at various scales. Fresh City Farms at Downsview park for example.

  • Designating areas for markets – Bellville has a formalized market downtown. Can also look at simpler models where policies allow parking lots to be used for markets at certain times.

  • By-laws such as allowing hens in the backyard for fresh eggs.

Participant shared: http://www.rentthechicken.com/


9. Erinn Salewski: Are there opportunities to insert food access language into municipal planning documents ie. City Master Plan, etc.?

  • Yes - see examples above

  • There are a number of documents that shape community planning - Official Plan, secondary plans with more detail (e.g., park space schools and lot sizes).


10. People living in poverty (whom, they themselves or people they know, also tend to experience higher levels and frequency of crisis) may not have energy or time (due to life as well as working multiple jobs) to go to a community garden/participate in a community garden - ideas for options?

  • Look for ways to overlap community gardens with other services/programs (i.e. have a garden in close proximity to other services)

  • Support people in having small scale gardens (i.e. balcony, vertical gardens). South Riverdale CHC has a demonstration rooftop garden set up.

  • Making it easier for people to garden by bringing it closer to where they are. It can be incorporated right on to the front lawn of a community organization, for example.

  • Note about Equity – food banks are a piece of the food access picture, but other models like a community kitchen or a subsidized good food market (Food Share is making it easier to get these markets set up in Toronto) are good options as well, and are often less stigmatizing.

Participants shared:

  • Connecting people to other services (i.e. social services) in the community is also important


11. Teaching children about respect for the environment is an important aspect of sustainability, and may contribute to how children make decisions about the environment as they grow older. I firmly believe that this process should start while children are young. A large number of Child Care Centres are located in strip malls, where children have limited access to gardening. What do others think about having Child Care Centres located in 'safe environments' (geographically) which provide greenspace opportunities for children to grow their little gardens, and develop physical literacy at the same time?

  • With regard to engaging students in schools, when students and teachers are involved in the garden design process first – it builds up support for the idea.

  • If space is restrictive, might need to look at vertical gardens or gardening indoors (planting seedlings in the window and taking home)

  • In terms of child care centres in strip malls (may be a health impact when located near a busy road).

12. How can schools be supported to provide healthy options for students and contribute to the food security issues in the larger community?

  • Paul is working with Toronto Public Health to show students where food is located in their neighborhood (as well as recreation resources). Teachers have a toolkit to incorporate this map into their class lessons/curriculum. Into Kids Health

  • At South Riverdale CHC Paul assisted schools in designing and planning gardens, and getting commitment from principals and teachers to support the garden (schools don’t often have resources to initiate this process).

  • Evergreen Learning Grounds – has resources and dollars for school ground greening programs (including gardens).

  • The Good Food Café (Food Share) – looks at how cafeteria food can be made healthier.

Participants shared:

  • In our community, the high school construction classes build all of the plots for the community gardens/ greenhouse. The Local Food Co-Op has a plot in their greenhouse that they provide for free to schools who do not have school gardens. Connections to other organizations can be key. www.cloverbeltlocalfoodcoop.com

  • The Ministry of Education does incorporate well-being (including physical literacy) in their How Does Learning Happen - Ontario's Pedagogy for the Early Years. NRC was involved in consulting with the Ministry of Education on how to incorporate Food literacy in to this document as well.

  • The tower garden/ vertical aeroponics approach has always looked interesting. A high school in Toronto has used them, good for areas with limited space.

  • Student Nutrition Program supports schools to provide healthy foods to students.

  • Interesting stuff happening with vertical hydroponics happening in the far north too. This is a fun story (one of many) http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/naujaat-nunavut-growing-north-project-1.3633295

13. In Canada, over 6 million tonnes of food that is perfectly good, and wholesome to eat is thrown in the garbage every single year; Yet 1 in 8 homes struggle to put enough food in the table. What models have you encountered that reduces food waste while improving food security and food access?

  • Second Harvest – Food rescue matching. Electronic app to connect consumers to food. If you’re running a business that has food that will expire, this app helps you connect.

  • South Riverdale CHC – has relationship with some bakeries – provides bread at the end of the day.

  • Important to build relationships between agencies and local food providers.

  • Urban fruit harvesting programs - Not far from the Tree

Participants shared:

For more resources on this topic, please see our Resource Sheet that was prepared for this online discussion.

 

 

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