Everyday life’s a challenge in a food desert

Hilary Beaumont

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Everyday life’s a challenge in a food desert


Published Nov. 4, 2012. Read the original version in The Chronicle Herald.

Groceries cost Donnie Mullins $20 more than most people. That’s the cost of a 2.6-kilometre round trip in a cab from the closest grocery store, Sobey’s on Windsor Street, to his building, Ahern Manor on Gottingen Street, where he’s lived for 15 years.

Mullins used to carry groceries on the back of his motorized wheelchair, but food would go missing on the way home.

“I live in a place that kids actually don’t get fed that well either,” he says. “So, it’s a competition, right?”

“Whatever they can get, they take. They’re hungry, too.”

He can’t take his groceries on the bus. Passengers are only allowed to bring what they can carry on their laps. And like many people in his neighbourhood, he doesn’t own a car. So Mullins dips into his food budget for cab money.

When he gets his groceries home, he can only carry so many bags at a time on his chair. So people steal the food he leaves downstairs.

Budgeting for transportation and having food stolen means Mullins does not eat as well as he’d like to. He wants a nutritious meal every day, but mostly he eats canned food heated up in the microwave.

“It’s not just me. There are many seniors and disabled people around us who have similar problems. They actually have credit at the corner stores because they can’t get to a grocery store.”

Things would be different if they didn’t live in a food desert.

Urban planners describe a “food desert” as a district with limited access to fresh, nutritious food.

Gottingen Street hasn’t seen a grocery store since Sobey’s joined the neighbourhood’s mass business exodus in the 1980s.

But working on the consensus that 1,300 households in the north end need better access to fresh food, a group of about 30 people are trying to change that.

In February or March, there could be a new grocery co-operative just two blocks from Mullins’ building. Recently, the group voted to name it the Community Carrot Co-op.

It all started three years ago with an enthusiastic man named Norman Greenberg. A psychologist with the Social Enterprise Network, Greenberg was working at a small convenience store that employed people with mental health problems.

“It was obvious that many other people in the neighbourhood had the same need, so I began to dream about something bigger.”

Sixteen months ago, he approached the North End Community Health Centre with his idea and they connected him with a large group of people who felt the same way. At a neighbourhood meeting, interested residents reacted with excitement to a slideshow about the potential of a local grocery co-op that would employ people from the community.

The co-op would be member-owned and organized. The pricing would be competitive. The atmosphere would be friendly, and there could even be a community kitchen.

Now Greenberg needs a spot to test-run the co-op for six months, and he’s eyeing a space on Gottingen. Eighteen months from now, The Hub on Barrington Street plans to move into a newly renovated space at 2169 Gottingen. He’s talking with the Hub owners now, and it’s possible he could temporarily move into the cavernous first floor of the former pool hall, now inhabited by power tools, industrial saws and a distinct smell of cedar.

But there are lots of conditionals in this equation. The largest is funding.

Last month, the Community Carrot Co-op submitted a bid for the Aviva Fund— an online contest that will give out $1 million nationally to independent organizations. The co-op is competing against other local organizations like the Centre for Art Tapes and the Akoma Family Centre.

To win the Aviva Fund, they need enough online votes. They’ve made it to round two, but the next deadline is tomorrow: Nov. 5.

Residents who need the co-op the most don’t have regular access to computers. So Greenberg is relying on the neighbourhood’s higher-income residents and empathetic people living outside the area.

The co-op members have put all their hope in the Aviva Fund. There is no back-up plan.

According to the co-op’s Aviva Fund webpage, 60 per cent of north end residents are low-income compared to 37 per cent of Halifax residents; 54 per cent of the area’s youth are unemployed; and 13 per cent of residents use the Parker Street Food Bank each week.

For someone with a higher income and more resources, living in a food desert can be stressful. But for low-income and poor residents, unhealthy food will make up a greater portion of their diet, and this will negatively affect their health.

North End Community Health Centre executive director Jane Moloney has seen it all: diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol are some of the health problems that walk through the NECHC door.

It’s like a refugee camp, she says. People in this neighbourhood are “significantly and consistently malnourished” because basic nutrition is difficult to achieve.

We’re sitting at a red table in the Backpackers Cafe, also known as Alteregos, on Gottingen Street. The owner, Michelle Strum, glides around the small space making sure her employees, hostellers and customers are comfortable. She stocks her display fridge with cheaper-than-average samosas and fresh fruit. Other than three corner stores and two late-night pizza shops, Alteregos is one of the neighbourhood’s only food options. Although it’s cheaper than other cafes in the city, it’s still expensive for people on income assistance.

“It’s being referred to as a food desert, and that really is true,” Moloney says.

“There are very few options to buy anything that is healthy, that is fresh, that is reasonably priced, within walking distance of a good six, eight square blocks, if not more.”

People find different ways of dealing with that, she explains. They spend a portion of their already limited budgets on taxis, or buy small quantities of marked-up groceries from the corner store, or run lines of credit at the pizza shops.

A co-op could change residents’ quality of life immensely, she says — not just their nutrition.

“Imagine that you could get a discount off your groceries if you are a member, and you could get another discount off your groceries if you volunteer or work in the store a few hours,” she says.

“That’s also going to give you a work history, and perhaps you’re struggling to get a work history.”

For Mullins, a co-op two blocks away would mean a cheaper cab ride. And spending less money on transportation would mean more nutritious food in his life. Eventually, he hopes the co-op will have a grocery delivery service.

“The co-op I envision would be a nice, family, neighbourhood store on a bigger basis,” he says. “They would know your name, they would know your needs, and it would be a good experience to go there.”


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