What happens when a community becomes a food desert overnight?
She calls non-profit Community Care Peterborough’s satellite office in her eastern Ontario village, Apsley, to book a spot on a twice-weekly shuttle-bus service. Then, on either Tuesday or Thursday morning, a driver picks her up and takes her to the nearest grocery store — about 45 kilometres away, in Bancroft. Depending on how many shoppers join Vogt, the whole outing can take upwards of three hours, but the 57-year-old is nonetheless grateful for the free ride. “If somebody didn’t do something like that, a lot of people would be lost,” she says.
Until recently, Vogt, who does not drive, could walk the 10 minutes to Sayers Foods to do her shopping. But, when the long-time family-owned business burned down last month, North Kawartha Township, which includes the hamlet of Apsley, suddenly found itself without a grocery store. Community members quickly began rallying to ensure that residents still had access to fresh food. “We’re pretty small, and, you know, we’ve got, like, one of everything,” says Carolyn Amyotte, North Kawartha Township’s mayor. “And then to lose one of those things — it throws everything into a loop.”
Amyotte attended an emergency meeting with the township’s economic-development-co-operative committee on December 6, the day after the fire. Because Community Care and the North Kawartha Food Bank were already dealing with food-insecurity issues, representatives from the organizations were asked to help create a plan. “People reacted very quickly because, I think, they understand the importance of making sure people can access food in a timely manner,” says Alicia Vandine, Community Care’s donor relations and communications lead.
Within days, new measures began rolling out. Community Care expanded its Caremobile program — which gives rides to clients for day-to-day needs, such as appointments — to anyone needing to make a trip for groceries, free of charge. And, after Hamilton Bus Lines reached out to donate a bus and volunteer drivers, the free shuttle service that Vogt uses was established. Community Care volunteers deliver groceries to those unable to travel or concerned about doing so because of COVID-19. “We have been in the Aspley area for over 30 years providing support services — it’s kind of what we do,” says Vandine. “We will continue to coordinate services to provide greater ease for residents as long as we possibly can.”
The loss of Sayers Foods has also affected the North Kawartha Food Bank, which is located across the street. “The largest impact we’ve had from the Sayers store closing down is that they used to prepare what we call a brown-bag program,” explains the food bank’s treasurer, Diane Rothnie. Sayers patrons could buy bags of groceries — worth about $10 — that would then be donated to the food bank; in a normal month, the store would sell about 30. “In the summertime, it would greatly increase because of the summer residents and tourists coming through,” Rothnie says. “So, for the food bank, that was the largest impact as far as our bottom line goes.” (The township’s population swells from about 2,500 to around 15,000 in the summer.)
However, recent donations are going a long way to help, she says: “People have been driving up and leaving stuff in my porch for the food bank, so our shelves are full.”
And Loblaw and the Peterborough Superstore are providing the food bank with $5,000 worth of food. The contribution follows a three-day PC Express pop-up in the village over the holidays that allowed residents to order groceries online and pick them up from the parking lot of the North Kawartha Community Centre. “While this is our first time operating pick-up straight out of a truck in a community like Apsley, this is not our first time offering further convenience to our customers and colleagues via PC Express,” reads an email statement attributed to Lauren Steinberg, senior vice-president, Loblaw digital. “We are currently looking at longer-term support in the community and how we might be able to help.” Demand was so strong for the service, says Amyotte, that not everyone was able to access it.
Jeff Sayers says he’s received an outpouring of support for his family business. “It’s a great feeling to know that there are people that are behind you and want you to get back up and running,” he says. According to Amyotte, rebuilding Sayers Foods could take upwards of 18 months. In the meantime, Amyotte wants to see something like the PC Express service extended — although she says she understands that the second lockdown complicates the situation. “Certainly, the most vulnerable people are those people who don’t have transportation to get to the grocery store. It’s not like you can call a cab — we don’t have anything like that,” she says. The older age demographics in North Kawartha, where the median age is 55, 14 years above the national median, make the community response especially important, she adds.
The lack of access to groceries in North Kawartha, which encompasses 775 square kilometres, makes it what is commonly called a “food desert.” “The main idea is that they are communities that don’t have access to healthy foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables … where all you have are fast-food outlets and those kinds of snack bars,” says Gisèle Yasmeen, executive director of the advocacy alliance Food Secure Canada. She notes that food deserts are a symptom of an issue, not the cause: “Don’t focus too much on the food desert itself, focus on the cause, and the cause is poverty, low income, social inequalities.”
Yasmeen suggests that transportation is one short-term solution. “Transportation is definitely part of the whole food-insecurity picture,” she says. “People don’t often think of the transportation side of things.” However, she adds, a “big-picture” response should include resilient local food-supply chains involving, for example, urban agriculture and community farms. Rod MacRae, an associate professor at York University’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, agrees that transportation can be an effective temporary measure: “The shuttle thing sounds like a good possible interim solution; I mean, you don’t have enough time to set up another grocery store unless there’s already a building that … can be quickly converted.” He notes, though, that this type of arrangement can pose challenges for people with inflexible work schedules.
A longer-term approach, he suggests, could involve residents setting up a buying group: “It’s like a co-operative without a storefront.” The group would purchase from a wholesale distributor, which would deliver to a location based on regular orders. However, MacRae adds, you would need appropriate facilities to store and process orders.
Having to leave town for groceries may frustrate some, but, back in Apsley, Vogt is taking her new circumstances in stride. She even likes the commute. “Bancroft is my hometown, really, so, you know, I enjoy doing it,” she says, noting that, on a past trip, she got to see her sister for the first time in years.
And Amyotte emphasizes what she calls a “silver lining” to a year in which facing the pandemic was just the beginning of the challenges for North Kawartha Township: “Our community is in a better place. I feel like we’re more united — there’s a real strong sense of community.”