Naureen Aqueel

Twenty-two neighbourhoods face problems accessing healthy food: Ottawa Neighbourhood Study

Posted on: November 20, 2012

Published in The Ward, Nov 20, 2012. 

2012-11-20 11.47.27

Ottawa has 22 neighbourhoods that have inequitable access to healthy foods, Dr. Elizabeth Kristjansson of the award-winning Ottawa Neighbourhood Study said Tuesday at an event organized by Ottawa Public Health. Kristjansson who was speaking at the Meet, Eat and Learn (M.E.A.L) forum at the Ottawa Public Library said that neighbourhood design and community access to grocery stores can cause a number of potential health issues.

Kristjansson spoke of a consistent link that has been found between poor health and poor access to healthy foods in areas that do not have grocery stores nearby.

“People that live in these areas with poor access to grocery stores are consistently found to have poorer diet, high rates of obesity, higher rates of diabetes and higher rates of cardiovascular diseases,” Kristjansson said.

But Kristjansson pointed out that these were not necessarily true causal relationships. Studies have only revealed a consistent link between poor health and poor access to healthy food, she said.

“Food purchasing patterns have been found to be not only related to price but convenience,” she said. “People shop at the closest places.”

The head of the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, who is also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said that areas that have a “food imbalance,” which she described as a higher ratio of unhealthy things like convenience stores and fast food restaurants to grocery stores, have higher mortality rates. She said the issue posed a complex problem for urban and health planning policy makers.

Kristjansson announced the launch of the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study website that presents food-related data and information on the strengths and challenges for each neighbourhood. Her team won the national prize for collaborative research – a $25,000 award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – in September.

The study, which was launched in 2005, brings together the work of contributors from the University of Ottawa, Ottawa Public Health, the City of Ottawa, local community health and resource centres, Carleton University, United Way/Centraide Ottawa, IBM, The Champlain Group and the Ottawa Food Bank.

The study maps and profiles more than 90 neighbourhoods and lists demographics, incomes and other social determinants for them.

“The Ottawa Neighbourhood Study has a great impact on informing public policy and has contributed greatly to better public education at the community level,” Kristjansson said in an earlier statement.

The study identified “food deserts” in various parts of Ottawa where residents have to walk great distances to find a grocery store. Kristjansson said that the findings showed that a lot of the food deserts were concentrated in the downtown area, but that not all lower income areas in the city’s centre face that problem. “A lot of downtown lower-income communities have great access,” she said.

Some other neighbourhoods of concern identified in the study were Bayshore, Greenboro and Carlington.

Other Canadian cities are now considering starting their own versions of the neighbourhood study.

Dr. Isra Levy, a medical officer at Ottawa Public Health, said the data was vital for public policy. “With this new data in hand, Ottawa Public Health and our partners can better address social challenges such as the lack of proper access to healthy food,” Levy said in a statement.

Other organizations working on food insecurity in the city also participated and spoke at the event. Just Food, Ottawa Food Bank, Poverty and Hunger Working Group and the School Breakfast program were some of the organizations that presented updates about their work.

Jamie Hurst, a nutritionist at Ottawa Public Health who was one of the organizers of the event, said the event was a contribution by the organization towards dealing with food insecurity.

“We recognize that food and security, and specifically hungers, are significant issues in our city,” Hurst said. “At the same time we recognize that we cannot solve the problem on our own. It requires a collaborative effort among many, many partners and so we wanted to have the opportunity to bring all of those partners together.”

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