Forty minutes in a car can take you from one town to the next in Westman, but that’s as long as some Brandonites spend riding the bus one way to go for groceries in the city.
Lack of access to grocery stores is highlighted in a new report, called the Brandon Community Food Assessment, released this month by the Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation (BNRC) after surveying 445 city residents about how and where they shop for food.
Questionnaires and focus groups tell a story of food insecurity among the city’s most vulnerable citizens, but a GIS map, drawn up by researchers at Brandon University and the BNRC using statistical data, paints a picture of the Wheat City as a difficult place to find staple affordable groceries for those who don’t drive.
This map of the city’s ‘food deserts’ makes a lack of equitable access to food really vivid, said BNRC community development co-ordinator Naomi Leadbeater.
“It’s a really visual way to identify where the gaps are,” she said.
“We can compare where there’s lots of low-income housing to where there’s no grocery stores, or where people don’t have access to transit or own their own vehicles,” she said.
Brandon’s significant area of ‘food desert’ is in the city’s downtown core, plus an area to the southwest of the city. These are areas where larger numbers of apartments and forms of affordable housing are concentrated. But the grocery stores aren’t nearby, revealing an urban planning issue that further complicates the link between those who live in affordable housing and food security, said Leadbeater.
Food deserts, which have been mapped out in urban areas around the world, are defined as neighbourhoods where residents, because of their own limited mobility, can’t easily get to locations where there are major supermarkets and therefore have little or no access to stores selling healthy affordable food.
Brandon’s food deserts likewise are identified food deserts using criteria that include the amount of time spent walking or transit distance to grocery stores, proportion of residents who walk or take the bus, as well as income level as an indicator of mobility.
It’s an urban planning matter for the city to look at, said Leadbeater.
“In a situation like in Brandon, where you have not enough housing and low vacancy rates, what you tend to build first is housing,” she said. “But you need to have planning for these other services too.”
The Brandon Community Food Assessment took 16 months to complete and included asking those surveyed about the availability and affordability of food where they live, as well as for ideas for addressing these food access issues. Community consultations with seniors after the closure of Stan’s Fine Foods in Brandon’s east end, for example, revealed a desire to have a ‘mobile food market’ visiting their residences on a weekly or biweekly basis.
Recommendations in the study include creating a grocery store shuttle, a need expressed especially by population groups over the age of 55, and looking for ways to establish business models, such as a co-op or social enterprise to locate a grocery store downtown. Other recommendations call for the creation of new types of food distribution methods and group buying programs.
The report additionally calls for a rethink of the city’s land use policies, including a revisit of recently expired agreements around green space usage that have helped Brandon’s community garden network expand.
The Brandon Community Food Assessment was completed through a partnership with the Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation and Brandon University. This project was supported with funding from Neighbourhoods Alive! (NA!) and Healthy Brandon, Healthy Together.