Hunger in Winnipeg: More grocery stores won't fix inner city problem, study says

Building more grocery stores in Winnipeg's inner city won't necessarily help the city's hungriest families access healthy food, a new study from the University of Winnipeg says.

University of Winnipeg study maps 'food mirages' where grocery stores scarce, poverty prevalent

Jino Distasio, the director of the Institute of Urban Studies for the University of Winnipeg, helped release a new study that shows two types of barriers to food in Winnipeg: distance to grocery stores and socio-economic factors like poverty. 1:07

Building more grocery stores in Winnipeg's inner city won't necessarily help the city's hungriest families access healthy food, a new study from the University of Winnipeg says.

"Walking to a grocery store isn't the main problem people face," said Kyle Wiebe, the lead author of the study and a research associate with the university's Institute of Urban Studies. "If they think a grocery store is going to be the end-all be-all to food security, then I think they've missed the mark way before just trying to build one."

The study, released Tuesday, challenges the notion that simply building grocery stores will help people access food.

It found 65 per cent of Winnipeg's inner city residents have poor access to healthy food — either because they're too far away from a grocery store or they can't afford food at a nearby store.

Among those, 60,000 people in the inner city are in "food mirages," which means there are grocery stores nearby, but people can't afford the food inside them.

"That's the tremendous tragedy that we see in Winnipeg," said Jino Distasio, co-author of the study and the director of the Institute of Urban Studies. "We think we've done a great thing in policy by promoting grocery stores in downtown, [but] people can't afford the food. That's the mismatch."

The study looked at 73 supermarkets in Winnipeg, and researchers mapped Winnipeggers' distance from stores along with social factors such as poverty.

William Whyte, Point Douglas, Chalmers and Valley Gardens were in the "severe food desert" category, which means they had little access to groceries nearby and also little means to purchase them.

"It's not uncommon to see a queue of cabs during [income assistance] cheque day," said Distasio.

Officials with Food Matters Manitoba, a group that works to make food more available and affordable, said that means people who have the least money are paying the most to access food in some cases.

'We think we've done a great thing in policy by promoting grocery stores in downtown, [but] people can't afford the food,' says Jino Distasio, co-author of the study and the director of the Institute for Urban Studies. (Bert Savard/CBC)

Classrooms full of hungry kids

Other areas, including West Broadway and the Daniel McIntyre area, ranked in the "severe food mirage" category, meaning the stores were close by, but people couldn't afford to buy food.

"It's a combination of both. It's not just about access," said Distasio. "At the end of the month, they have nothing left in the cupboard. In the beginning of the month, they have nothing in the cupboard."

Researchers found around 60 per cent of people living in the inner city had good walking access to a nearby market. In the suburbs, that number is much less, around 40 per cent.

Distasio said people can have the false impression that living close to a supermarket means people have good access to food.

"It's not about living in an affluent neighbourhood where you've got to drive to a power centre to get your food. It's about people who live in front of food and can't walk in that door and purchase that food," said Distasio. "In the inner city, we're sending classrooms full of kids [to school] hungry every single day.… It's all our problem."

The solution, researchers say, isn't just adding more grocery stores and incentivizing grocers to move into areas where there are few grocery options.

"The downtown could use more grocery stores. I mean, 62 per cent have walkable access. There's still 40 per cent who don't," said Wiebe. "But a grocery store isn't going to solve all the problems in the inner city. Not by any means."

It's also about more robust strategies to tackle poverty — from better access to employment to higher social assistance or living wages.

'63,000 people are in need of food every month'

"Work that we've been involved in in homelessness — people are almost more satisfied with the food that they get in missions and soup kitchens and lines than they are when they are in housing," said Distasio. "Assistance rates aren't necessarily supporting the income to provide for healthy food."

Distasio said Winnipeg has a disproportionate number of people living in poverty in the inner city, and that presents a huge policy challenge for current and previous governments.

"I mean, it's astounding that Winnipeg Harvest delivers one million pounds of food a month to Winnipeggers and Manitobans; 63,000 people are in need of food every month in this province. That is unbelievable," said Distasio. 

​Researchers said they were surprised to find that some far-flung areas also had severe food deserts, such as Meadowood in the southeast and the Maples in the northwest.

Wiebe said that means centralized strategies that only target the inner city don't help everyone who needs it.

"When people go hungry and nutrition is a factor, that impacts health. Health is a prime determinant of how people are going to survive in the community," said Distasio.

The University of Winnipeg is currently working on assembling a multi-disciplinary team to tackle the next phase of their research, including going into the community and working with Food Matters.

This graph shows Winnipeg's food deserts and food mirages — areas where access to healthy food is scarce because of poverty as well as distance from grocery stores. (Courtesy Institute for Urban Studies)