Why neighbourhood grocery stores matter

Less than three months along, 2013 is not shaping up to be a good year for the neighbourhood grocery store in Winnipeg. First, the Extra Foods supermarket in the North End closed in January. Then the Food Fare at the corner of Arlington and Polson closed last week, followed today (Sunday) by the closure of the grocery store at The Bay Downtown.

The loss of inner-city grocery stores is hardly unique to Winnipeg. Hamilton went without a downtown supermarket for 11 years until the announcement that Nations Fresh Foods, an Ontario chain that specializes in catering to the ethnic market, will open a 55,000 square foot store in Jackson Square, a struggling downtown shopping centre. London, Ont., has been less fortunate, and continues to struggle along without a downtown supermarket.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research finds that it can be a challenge to open a grocery store in an urban area. The challenges include zoning and regulatory approval, availability of suitable lands, higher construction and operating costs, more difficult access for both motorists and company supply trucks, and competing political goals.

The disappearance of downtown and inner-city grocery stores is more than just an inconvenience to those having to walk, drive or take the bus to a more distant location. A 2009 study from the University of Utah found that having a grocery store within walking distance of home helps prevent obesity:

We find a strong association between neighborhood retail food options and BMI/obesity risk . .. The presence of at least one healthy grocery option in low income neighborhoods is also associated with a reduction in BMI/obesity risk relative to no food outlets. Finally, multiple food options within a neighborhood reduce BMI/obesity risk, relative to no food options…

Russ Lopez of the Boston University School of Public Health came to a similar conclusion in a 2007 journal article, finding that having a supermarket in the neighbourhood was more strongly associated with lower obesity risk than population density, median income or proximity to businesses.

While it is possible that walkable neighbourhoods are more likely to attract people who like to stay in shape to begin with, it’s also possible that having to walk home with one’s groceries leads people to be more finicky about what they buy, as observed by Calgary Herald (and ex-Winnipeg Sun) columnist Naomi Lakritz this past January:

Walkability severely limits your grocery list. No milk cartons (too heavy), glass jars (ditto) or a lot of cans (more ditto). No ice cream or other frozen food in warm weather.

In winter, of course, the ice cream will come in handy when you slip on an icy sidewalk. You can use it to cushion your fall. Kind of.

And if you set your ice cream pail on top of a snowbank at the curb, you can use it as an aid to propel yourself over the pile of snow. 

Lakritz’s facetiousness aside, obesity has real economic costs, as explained by the OECD in a 2010 report:

Obese people earn up to 18% less than people of normal weight. They need to take more days off, claim more disability benefits, and tend to be less productive on the job than people of normal weight. In northern European countries, obese people are up to three times more likely than others to receive a disability pension, and in the United States they are 76% more likely to suffer short-term disability. When production losses are added to health care costs, obesity accounts for over 1% of GDP in the United States.

Though the U.S. has one of the worst obesity problems in the OECD — one-third of Americans are considered obese, based on a body-mass index of 30 or more — Canada is closer to the U.S. end of the scale, with about one-quarter of Canadian adults being obese, than to a number of European and Asian countries where fewer than 15 percent are obese.

Ease of access to a grocery store is more than just a convenience issue. It is also a health and economic issue. Keep that in mind the next time you hear about a grocery store closing — or a new neighbourhood being planned without consideration being given to having a neighbourhood grocery store.

Overweight and obesity rates by country. (Source: OECD. Click for source.)

Overweight and obesity rates by country. (Source: OECD. Click for source.)

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to Why neighbourhood grocery stores matter

  1. Don’s forget the Extra Foods on Notre Dame. it and the Bay were the downtown area’s largest.

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