Canadian researchers at the University of Western Ontario have studied the evolution of food deserts in urban areas. Food deserts are areas where people have low or no access to food shops. In other words, they are neighburhoods with low average home incomes and poor access to healthy food. As said the lead researcher, 'Poor people with no car can be severely adversely affected by living in food deserts and are more likely to suffer from bad health and low quality of life with diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.' But what is the major cause of food desertification? Supermarkets, because they are built in new suburbs while smaller food shops are disappearing from city centers. But read more...
As an example, you can see above two maps showing the evolution of the locations of supermarkets between 1961 and 2005 in London, Ontario -- along with the 1,000-meter service areas and city boundaries used in this study. (Credit: University of Western Ontario)
This research project has been led by Kristian Larsen, a M.A. student, under the supervision of Jason Gilliland, Assistant Professor and Director of the Urban Development Program of the University of Western Ontario Geography Department.
Here are some of the researchers' findings. "The researchers assessed people’s access to shops by foot and public transport. Geographic mapping techniques were used to map and analyze grocery store locations. Residents of several areas of the city had limited access to one of the city’s 28 supermarkets. Those people living in food deserts paid almost double the price as their supermarket shopping counterparts for supplies from small local convenience stores. Historical analysis showed that inner city areas were not always food deserts even though the city population has doubled in the 50 years. Whereas in 1961 over 75% of the population of the urban core had easy access to a supermarket, fewer than 20% of core residents have access today."
This research work appears online today in the BioMed Central open access publication International Journal of Health Geographics under the title "Mapping the evolution of 'food deserts' in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961-2005" (Volume 7, Article 16, April 18, 2008).
Here is a link to the abstract. "The findings indicate that residents of inner-city neighbourhoods of low socioeconomic status have the poorest access to supermarkets. Furthermore, spatial inequalities in access to supermarkets have increased over time, particularly in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Central and East London, where distinct urban food deserts now exist."
And here is the conclusion of the researchers. "Contrary to recent findings in larger Canadian cities, we conclude that urban food deserts exist in London, Ontario. Policies aimed at improving public health must also recognize the spatial, as well as socioeconomic, inequities with respect to access to healthy and affordable food. Additional research is necessary to better understand how supermarket access influences dietary behaviours and related health outcomes."
For more information, here is a link to a provisional version of the the full paper (PDF format, 41 pages, 894 KB). The above illustration has been extracted from this document.
Finally, even if this research brings some lights about the evolution of environmental inequalities in big cities of the industrialized world, I have to admit that the timing release for this study is pretty bad when you see riots over sharply rising food prices in Haiti, Egypt and many other countries. Please tell me what you think.
Sources: BioMed Central news release, April 17, 2008; and various websites
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