Ontario is ‘no longer a food desert’ – by Tom O’Toole
Ontario has become “no longer an affordable food desert”, according to a new report from the University of Toronto.
Ontario’s population has increased by 1.7 million since last year and more than 100,000 more Ontarians live in rural areas than urban centres.
This has created a “toxic environment” for rural communities, said the report, released on Monday.
“We can no longer afford to ignore the reality of food deserts and food insecurity in Ontario,” said Peter Pannack, the study’s lead author and associate professor of public policy at the University.
“There’s no longer a space for people to have a safe and affordable place to eat and to shop.”
The report found that Ontario is now home to a “slightly larger share of rural Ontarians” than urban ones, and the number of people living in rural Ontario has increased in recent years, with the population in the GTA growing by 8.2 per cent between 2016 and 2019.
The report, titled Ontario: Where food is, is now, and where it’s going, found that “a combination of rising housing costs, lower levels of public investment and a greater reliance on government assistance, all contribute to the increase in food deserts”.
“This has led to a toxic environment where food is expensive, scarce and often unaffordable for many,” said Pannak.
The food industry is a major driver of Ontario’s food insecurity problem.
According to the report’s authors, food prices have doubled in Ontario since 2008, with a large number of food outlets experiencing “significant price increases” as a result.
“Food prices have escalated rapidly in Ontario, with food prices up more than $30 per kg between 2012 and 2019,” the report said.
“In some parts of the province, food costs have been increasing faster than wages.”
The authors also found that the average price of food in Ontario has more than doubled over the last decade.
This “has been driven by an increase in the supply of produce and the price of meat,” the study said.
In 2015, Ontario’s median family income was $60,400, while the average Ontario household spent $7,564 on food.
The authors added that “the impact of rising food costs has been felt most acutely in rural communities” and “has impacted on the availability of affordable food.”
“The food deserts in Ontario have been largely created by increased supply and increased demand, but this increased demand has led consumers to seek out lower cost options for their meals, resulting in increased food prices in rural locations,” the authors wrote.
“The increasing cost of food and the increasing affordability of food have created a toxic food environment that has been driven mainly by increasing demand for processed foods and food products, as well as increased demand for food and food related products from food manufacturers.”
The study found that more than a quarter of Ontarians had never been to a grocery store and the vast majority of those surveyed did not use the internet to search for groceries.
“People who do use the Internet tend to shop in grocery stores and they tend to spend more on food and more on other items,” said Paul Janssens, professor of urban planning at U of T. “That is an indication of the toxicity of food desert areas, especially in rural regions.”
“I think there are a lot of people in rural and rural Ontario who are really struggling with the food crisis.
It’s a lot more difficult for them to have access to nutritious, affordable food,” he said.
Janssdens said that the Ontario government “needs to take the lead and address the food desert issue.”
The Ontario government has “been trying to address food deserts, but they’re not responding to the needs of the people who live in these food deserts,” he added.
Pannick said the government has focused on improving “the infrastructure and the supply chain” to help create a food economy.
“I’m pretty sure that Ontario’s going to see a lot, a lot less food deserts than the last few years,” he told CBC Toronto.
“Ontario has an opportunity here to make sure that there is a food system that works and is sustainable.”