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.