St. John’s Deemed a “Food Swamp” by Experts

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You’ve probably heard the term “food desert” it refers to an area (usually a poor area) lacking in grocery stores and other sellers of fresh whole foods. Food deserts are a problem across the United States, particularly in urban areas like Detroit where in 2013 there were only 10 grocery stores for every 100,000. Compare that to 40 for every 100,000 in San Francisco and 42 in Chicago, and the problem becomes obvious.

But there’s another problem of food access that’s discussed far less often: food swamps. A food swamp is an area with an overabundance of highly processed, unhealthy foods overtaking the healthy options that are available. And make no mistake, Newfoundland and Labrador is a food swamp.

A food swamp is an area with an overabundance of highly processed, unhealthy foods overtaking the healthy options that are available.

A recent event held at the Rocket Room, The Food In This Place, discussed what it means to live in a food swamp and looked at how such an environment affects our ability to make healthy choices – while also presenting participants with solutions for improving our food environment. Put on jointly between the Food Security Network NL, Eastern Health, and the Food Policy Lab at MUN, the workshop was an apt continuation of the growing provincial discussion around food security and public health.

The workshop’s leaders pointed out how an environment where we’re faced with unhealthy food choices at every turn makes it hard to make healthier decisions–and that’s exactly what food manufacturers are betting on. “Food companies know this,” Leia Minaker of the University of Waterloo said of our problems resisting poorer choices, “and they market things specifically to where your weaknesses are and how to make you buy the things they want you to buy.” Workshop participants saw this in action first-hand when the leaders, which also included Brian Cook of Toronto Public Health and Catherine Mah of MUN’s Food Policy Lab, sent them out in groups to examine local food environments and report on their findings.

That field trip brought good news and bad. Caine’s on Duckworth Street, for example, sells beer and processed foods–but also fresh fruit and a selection of meals made daily from scratch. Sobey’s on Merrymeeting has plenty of whole foods, of course, but you can also find chips in literally every section of the store, produce aisles included.

One local initiative to reduce the swampiness of the food environment in this province is Healthy Corner Stores NL, a joint project of the Food Security Network, Eastern Health, and the Food Policy Lab. The project is working with corner stores across Newfoundland and Labrador–and we have the most per capita of any Canadian province–to introduce healthier options like whole produce and freshly prepared meals.

If you’re interested in initiatives like these and others aimed at improving food security and health in the province, look into the work of the Food Security Network of NL–you can become a member or apply to be part of their board of directors.

About Author

Terri Coles

Terri Coles, a freelance writer and editor, recently moved back to St. John’s after more than a decade in Ontario.

5 Comments

  1. Shelly Brown on

    An older family member through marriage moved from NL to NB and one summer day I gave her half of a bunch of gorgeous produce I bought at the farmer’s market. I thought she would be happy the the various items but she had no idea what to do with most of it. She just wasn’t used to it in her diet even though she tries to eat healthy.

  2. Chico Science on

    Pretty much. And I agree with Shelly above too. NF was isolated for century + … as well in NS and i guess NB… people have no idea what a kale, a collard, watercress, so on… most people i talk GMO or organic goes: “Ah? Uuuat?” Fried frankencorn fed chicken & fries, inorganic pizza (Magic Oven Pizza where r u? Panago to b mainstream chain, where r u?) then pounds of donuts/muffins, triple sugar triple cream coffee, midmorning some shots of pop cola (diet is the worst) then fast food lunch, more pos afternoon shots of colas, then some fried dinner, etc etc… but also we have some bit salty and affordable blesses like Rocket Bakery, an Hummus place in Duckworth, Davids Tea with an awesome selection of organic teas (lacks some organic coffee in this concept), Sobeys and Colemans has this time of year pesticide-free greens (comes in a big bag excellent for stews/soups), the somehow new Vietnamese restaurant was pretty good and clean with lemongrass recipes, oh well the list is not short for some positive aspects as well. But surely a Petes Frootique, or any similar to Whole Foods (theres out there so many more Canadian-owned friendlier than WF), will help to raise awareness of not only a better nutrition but promote and incentivate new healthier eateries and stores (but pls no big chains, local owned preferred), we really need it. I love to move to way west of the rock but we are afraid we wont find organic and fresh food there… People ask me everyday how i like here and i say: “great super warm friendly people, great nature, unreal tragic weather &,food… but we have faith and hope the latter will improve. Love NL!

  3. The problem became a problem when big supermarkets were introduced to NL. I remember as a child (I’m in my late 50’s) my mother getting her food supply from the local grocer. There was one on just about every block in St. John’s back in the day. We actually lived next door to one which was owned by my grandfather. My mother would get her basics like potato, cabbage, turnip, carrot from the veggie bins in his store. Our meals consisted of meat / fish and veggies. She made her own bread once a week and desserts consisted of jello with fruit or homemade cookies or cake…. but only on Sunday! There was NOT a lot of processed food present at our house but neither was there an assortment of fruit and vegetables. We had apples and oranges weekly and blueberries when in season but bananas and grapes were reserved for special occasions like Christmas. I don’t think I knew what cucumber, celery, peppers, or mushrooms were as a child . Melons, most berries and avocado …. unheard of! We ate pretty basic food but it was healthy. Our sweets were consumed in moderation. Today we have a lot more to choose from in fruit and vegetables (still not enough) but the overabundance of processed food is overwhelming. With today’s demands on people it just seems that it is so much easier to grab a meal to go than it is to go home an prepare a nutritious sit down meal . I know I’m guilty of doing just that! Sometimes I crave the simpler times.

  4. chico science on

    Katie… I know what u mean. And u r right, even with few raw fresh veggies u can live a healthy life, away of course from the chemicals laden processed cans, containers, and plastic wraps. Exceptions can b made with the new organic industry, some even are careful enough to label bpa-free, non-gmo, etc. They might not b perfect as I believe their contents are not 100% organic, but at least they are concerned with the overall situation where not only is impossible to find sugar-free (glucose, frutose and other names the gmo corn sugar have around), and canola & soy both gmo’s free inside these cans and what not processed garbage. All these ingredients in the shelves nowadays contribute to put our health down without a doubt. But all of this [↑] is high hierarchy, what maybe SJ’s need is more small conscious markets, family owned, local, veggies, berries, vegan restaurants, more of homemade recipes, more food trucks with local seafood (in Tofino they have one which started one small truck and now became a restaurant), etc. And u very right when u poke the supermarket thing. Despite I see some “healthy” options at sobeys and dominion, mostly in the front their ready made just heat food options are nothing buy fried chicken and starches. Its frustrating for people like me who have to dig deeper to find food that is a little bit more nutritional and fresh. Anyway the food swamp remains and will take time before people wake up from their disneylandian utopic world of consumerist and “healthy” tv food and start to realize that food matters, real food.

  5. All the foods are out there.. Its what you choose to buy.. Its peoples choice, not manufacturers fault… The problem is glutany and no will power… Not an abundance of chips at sobeys.. People sook about way to much these days!

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