When Murry Krause got wind Prince George’s sole downtown supermarket was moving, he grew concerned about food security for the neighbourhood’s low-income residents.

The store plans to move to the outskirts of the northern B.C. community, explained the city councillor and chair of the city’s poverty reduction committee, making it more difficult for residents — particularly those with mobility issues or who are balancing several jobs — to get affordable, healthy food.

“We know that if there’s no regular supermarket available, people … tend to go to the local convenience store, and, certainly, there are not the healthiest options for food there,” he said.

Without a grocery store, Krause is concerned downtown Prince George will become a food desert, a term coined in the 1990s to describe a geographical area where residents can’t easily access affordable, healthy food. They’re increasingly common across Canada, but some researchers studying how to make food more accessible say focusing solely on the location of food stores is only part of the picture.

“I think food deserts, that concept is useful as a starting point,” said Michael Widener, a geography professor at the University of Toronto who studies access to food and health care. “But it’s better to think about food environments and how … different barriers impact people’s ability to interact with their food environment.”

Those barriers?

“Money is probably the biggest barrier, because money buys you space and time,” he explained.

Statistics Canada reported in June that roughly 14.6 per cent of Canadians — about 5.1 million people — had lacked food at least once in the previous month, a four per cent increase compared to 2018. While that number is expected to increase as the pandemic wears on, hunger — a symptom of poverty — has been on the rise for decades.

It’s a social ill driven by low-wage and precarious work: Wages are the main source of income for about 65 per cent of food-insecure people, according to PROOF, a research team investigating policy approaches to reduce food insecurity. Low wages are particularly widespread among women, Indigenous people, and people of colour, noted a 2019 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“Money is probably the biggest barrier, because money buys you space and time,” says @MichaelJWidener. #FoodDeserts #FoodSecurity  

Nationally, the annual income for someone working full-time at minimum wage is, on average, $27,600. And when it comes to understanding food access, accounting for the cumulative impact of those wages is key.

“Money gives you access to a vehicle, it gives you the ability to pay for a babysitter … to spend time on accessing groceries and then subsequently, using that time to do things like making a meal,” Widener explained. “It gives you a lot of flexibility.”

In Prince George, Krause explained that people who don’t have a car will struggle most to access healthy food. Unlike Vancouver or other large urban centres, the city is scattered and relatively low-density. Because most people have cars, it makes economic sense for grocers to migrate to larger, less-expensive locations on the outskirts of the city that have ample parking.

That’s true for most of Canada’s urban centres under 100,000 people, and rural areas, which are home to roughly 40 per cent of Canadians, said Rebecca Haswell, a postdoctoral fellow with the BC Centre for Disease Control’s food security team. And from a food policy perspective, that is a major challenge to overcome.

“Thinking about (increasing) food access … in a city of 80,000 is really different from what you can do in a city of a million,” she said. That’s partly because smaller cities tend to be more dispersed and have fewer resources, but their role as regional hubs for more rural areas also plays a part.

“It’s not just that the smaller communities are really different, but they (also) have a really different relationship with (surrounding) land.”

For instance, Prince George is the largest centre in northern B.C. and is the main service centre for almost a third of the province — an area the size of France. The city’s food stores are also catering to this clientele, as many residents from more rural areas drive to the city to stock up on the relatively affordable foods sold by large supermarket chains. That makes it more profitable for grocery stores to be near major thoroughfares, not in the downtown core.

It also undermines smaller, more rural stores’ ability to stay in business — and the regional food access they provide, she explained.

“In these smaller regions, travel to larger centres for shopping, for work, or other services is really normalized. The local stores are really seen as places for top-up shopping, but not somewhere where you could meet all your needs.”

That pattern makes it almost impossible for smaller, regional grocers to compete against their urban competitors, which are generally owned by one of Canada’s grocery giants, like Loblaw or Empire Company. Loblaw owns several brands, including Great Canadian Superstore, No Frills, and Shoppers Drug Mart, while Empire owns Safeway, Sobeys, and other brands.

Both companies — and their largest competitors — have vertically integrated supply chains that make it possible for them to sell at lower prices than independent retailers, she explained.

“This larger food system has really gotten skewed over time, where we have fewer companies, and we’ve seen a lot of consolidation in the retail market, and smaller stores have a really difficult time competing. But at the same time, (these) stores are providing an essential service to their communities.”

Taking this dynamic into account is essential for governments looking to ensure everyone — in urban and rural communities — has access to healthy and affordable food. That might mean supporting smaller food stores, so they can compete, and ensuring people have high enough wages to support their local stores and travel to large stores in urban centres when needed, she said.

Widener agrees.

“In many ways … the geography is not the real issue,” he said. “Income is the real issue.”

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer