October 26, 2011. 12:15 pm • Section: The Green Man
People marooned in B.C.’s wealthiest neighbourhoods have the least access to fresh foods and fresh food retailers, according to a study by University of British Columbia researcher Jennifer Black.
“It turned out to be the opposite of what we expected,” said Black. Higher income neighbourhoods in B.C.’s urban centres tend to have fewer food stores, she found.
That means people in the city’s least dense neighbourhoods who are aging and less mobile or living in basement suites have less access to healthy foods, Black said.
Conventional wisdom has it that the city’s least well-off are most likely to lack access to fresh foods, a misconception fuelled by studies from the United States that found “food deserts” in urban Afro-America and Hispanic neighbourhoods.
But Black and her colleagues Richard Carpiano, Stuart Fleming and Nathanael Lauster found that in B.C., the opposite may be true. According to their analysis, as incomes rise and single-family homes come to dominate the landscape, the distance to a major grocer or small fresh food store increases.
“When I lived in New York I was quickly struck by the disparities both in terms of food access and health outcomes in the city’s [poor] neighbourhoods,” said Black. “In general, lower income and minority neighbourhoods tend to have clear, systematically worse access to healthy foods, particularly through large supermarkets.”
Instead of affordable food and large supermarkets, poor neighbourhoods in Harlem, South Bronx and Brooklyn are mainly served by convenience stores that are relatively more expensive and have far fewer fresh food options. In Vancouver, only a few neighbourhoods fit that mould.
She began to ponder ways to measure food access and determine whether the disparities matter to people’s health and well-being.
“I wondered if it was the case here, especially considering the progressive food community here,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of research on this, but outside the United States the story is quite different. There just isn’t the systematic story about food deserts in low-income neighbourhoods like there is in the United States.”
In B.C., the higher the proportion of single detached houses — something that is usually associated with wealth — the less likely a neighbourhood is to have zoning that invites food businesses.
Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer observed that the neighbourhoods in Vancouver least likely to have fresh food stores close by are those built up after the advent of the automobile, mainly neighbourhoods south of 12th Avenue and in the city’s south and southeast corners such as Dunbar, Kerrisdale, South Granville and Champlain Heights. Rather than dense urban neighbourhoods, they tend to be suburban in character and more automobile-centric, not to mention rabidly resistant to change.
“These are American-style neighbourhoods where you get in your car and you drive to the local strip mall,” Reimer said.
Higher density, more walkable neighbourhoods — the city’s oldest neighbourhoods such as East Broadway, Commercial Drive, Main Street and Kitsilano — tend to have the kind of commercial zoning and customer base that attracts not only large grocery stores but a host of other smaller fresh food stores such as fish mongers and ethnic fruit and veg sellers.
In neighbourhoods that have been substantially rebuilt over the past two decades, such as False Creek Flats and Downtown South, zoning that allows for a mix of residential and commercial uses helps bring food businesses and people into closer proximity. The urban planning style the world is embracing as Vancouverism might make people healthier.
The city’s Greenest City Action Plan calls for zoning and regulatory changes to encourage the development of food businesses, infrastructure and systems to provide equitable access to healthy food in all neighbourhoods, but such changes are relegated to the long-term goals list.
“Vancouver has been working on a process of accelerating commercial development along arterials and on intersections, by zoning commercial and residential density together,” she said. “But in the market economy the market goes where demand is and the housing density is not that high — it’s not appealing to stores to locate in a low-density area.”
Creating human-scale walkable neighbourhoods with the myriad fresh food options of, say, Commercial Drive, in the city’s southeast and southwest corners will require a coordinated upzoning program that will bring commercial development and high-density residential development hand in hand.
Perhaps the lure of a neighbourhood fishmonger, fruit stand and a local baker in a bustling village atmosphere will motivate the well-heeled defenders of Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods to soften just a little to the notion of change.