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‘If you don’t have any money for food, it doesn’t matter how close the store is,’ says Brian Cook, research consultant with Public Health's Toronto Food Survey, seen here at a corner store in St. James Town.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Thousands of residents live in the cluster of apartment towers that fill almost an entire city block at the corner of Parliament and Wellesley streets in Toronto. With an estimated population of over 25,000, St. James Town is the most densely populated community in the country. But there are only two discount grocery stores in the neighbourhood.

Despite a huge need for a wider variety of food options, St. James Town would not show up on a "food desert" map. Often described as neighbourhoods, usually low-income, with a dearth of supermarkets, "food deserts" have become the default concept for discussing food insecurity, even though there is no consensus on how to actually define or measure them. This vagueness, ombined with a narrow focus on proximity to supermarkets, can lead to distorted representations of food access that overlook communities like St. James Town, which may have grocery stores nearby but are still underserved.

"It speaks to the need to look at the broader criteria required for food access mapping … because the quality of food there totally doesn't match the density," says Brian Cook, a researcher with the city's Food Strategy team. Still, the idea of food deserts persists because it is an evocative analogy that's simple to grasp, conjuring an image of a barren landscape devoid of fresh produce.

But the Food Strategy team is trying to think differently, eschewing the "food desert" mentality in favour of a more nuanced approach that examines what features of a neighbourhood affect health. The goal is to create a more accurate picture of how people in Toronto get their food, says Mr. Cook, who is leading the project. "[We're] trying to expand on the whole food desert discussion and get beyond the idea that it's all about distance to supermarkets."

To get a more detailed look at the various neighbourhoods in Toronto, researchers are creating a food retail environment index that calculates a score based on the number of healthier food stores within a particular block. The lower the number, the less healthy the food environment is. "So you get a kind of heat map of the city where you see hot spots and cool spots" of high and low index scores, Mr. Cook says.

An early draft did not show any broad patterns in the suburb versus downtown. But the index still needs to be refined to account for factors like pricing, population density or the ratio of healthier to less-healthy food within stores. Other data, like walkability and transportation access, will be also overlaid on top of the index. Once it is complete, researchers will be able to use index to focus on specific blocks, which will give them a better sense of that community's needs. "The maps are more of a marker instead of telling us the answer," Mr. Cook says.

Food access is affected by a host of factors – including income, mobility, transportation, walkability – that create a "layering of disadvantages."

"If you don't have any money for food, it doesn't matter how close the store is," Mr. Cook says. "What's more important is looking at the broader food retail environment."

To do this, researchers first mapped "healthier and "less healthy" food retail across Toronto based on density and population. "When you look at those maps, there's no obvious pattern," he says. Some low-income areas have a high density of less healthy food stores while others have good access to healthier retail. "There's no automatic correlation between income and a less healthy food environment. You really need to look at specific neighbourhoods," each of which has its own set of challenges, Mr. Cook says.

Take Lotherton Pathway – an isolated community of four apartment towers and 88 townhouses near Lawrence Avenue and Caledonia Road in North York. The neighbourhood is boxed in by industrial buildings, single-family dwellings and a set of train tracks, making it a challenge to navigate by foot or bus. Apart from a convenience store tucked behind the apartment complex, there's hardly any food retail within an easy walking distance. "It is a bit of an island. There's really no place to put in a supermarket there," Mr. Cook says.

A recent University of Waterloo study suggests that proximity to convenience stores – not supermarkets – is the strongest indicator of a person's diet quality and weight, especially for women. Leia Minaker, a postdoctoral fellow at the university, examined the food retail environment in the Waterloo region and found that the closer women lived to a corner store, the heavier they tended to be. In-store pricing was the other big predictor of health for both men and women. If the healthier food option was cheaper, they were less likely to be overweight.

"If you think about how people shop for food, they will often go far out of their neighbourhood to shop at cheap grocery stores for their big, weekly purchases," Dr. Minaker says. But for day-to-day purchases, they may visit a convenient store where they get lured into buying unhealthy food.

"It is impossible to be healthy without food," says Debbie Field, the executive director of FoodShare, an organization that runs programs aimed at improving food security throughout Toronto. In 2010, the city released the Toronto Food Strategy, which outlined ideas for increasing food access by integrating it with other areas of city planning, like transportation and urban design. Taking a comprehensive approach to food security makes sense because it fits into the city's broader plans to make Toronto a healthier place to live, Ms. Field says.

"In a city like Toronto, where we're trying to build a city of healthy people" – by curbing childhood obesity, preventing diet-related illnesses, creating urban environments where people can easily walk, drive or take public transit – "then having fresh food access is key." But it's not enough just to make food available; it also needs to be fresh, affordable and culturally appropriate. "A food strategy has layers of needs around food access," Ms. Field says, needs that reflect the diversity of the city's population.

Researchers also found that, in general, big-chain retailers are not ignoring low-income areas, like Lotherton Pathway. Higher distances to grocery stores, particularly in the inner suburbs, are often the result of "progressive" zoning practices from the 50s and 60s that separated residential areas from commercial activity. Space in Toronto is also limited. "The big food retailers have found pretty much every area in the city where they can put in a traditional supermarket," Mr. Cook says.

If people have a hard time getting to the food, why not bring the food to the people? That's an idea the city is exploring with the Mobile Good Food Market, a truck run by FoodShare that travels to underserved areas of the city, like Lotherton Pathway, to sell fresh and affordable produce. Whether a roving market can improve dietary choices still remains to be seen as the city continues to collect data from the pilot project, which began last July and is expected to run at least through this year.

The city is also looking at whether smaller food stores can play a role in improving healthy food access. "Our objective is to figure out how we can have both the retailers make money and also make healthy and diverse food available to those communities that don't have it right now," Mr. Cook says. Researchers have started talking to smaller food retailers about their needs and challenges to understand how the corner store model works. For instance, these owners often do not have the budget to buy new equipment or display and refrigerate produce. And for retailers located outside downtown, especially Scarborough, getting access to high-quality, low-priced produce is difficult because they're so far away from the food terminal in Etobicoke.

Dr. Minaker, who is working with Mr. Cook on this project, says, "I don't think the solution will be as simple as saying, 'Here's food. Everyone now has to go out and eat it.' But [healthy food] has to be available where people live for them to be able to buy it."

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