Food Strategy Update: Healthy Corner Store Project

Healthycornerstore-image-page-001The Toronto Food Strategy team at Toronto Public Health is moving forward on their exciting Healthy Corner Store Project, which aims to make fresh and healthy food accessible to more Toronto neighbourhoods, while supporting local economic development.

Many Torontonians are faced with economic and geographic barriers to accessing healthy and culturally appropriate food. A part of the problem is that many neighbourhoods are underserved by affordable supermarkets. Through research using GIS mapping, the Food Strategy team found that there is not the commercial space needed to simply open more supermarkets. There is, however, an abundance of convenience stores, whose existing food retail space could be utilized to better serve communities. The Food Strategy team wants to facilitate and support the conversion of existing convenience stores into “healthy corner stores”.

The Pilot Community

The first steps are well underway: a pilot project in East Scarborough to support a corner store to sell more healthy and fresh food to serve the culturally diverse residents of two high rise apartment buildings is in its beginning stages. This community experiences multiple barriers to accessing healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food.

A key barrier is the lack of affordability of the food sold in the area, compounded by the time and money it takes just to access a grocery store. The neighbourhood is not very walkable – the closest grocery stores are a 20 minute walking distance away, and the public transit is inadequate. This is especially difficult for residents without cars, those who experience mobility issues, and single parents with young children.

A healthy convenience store could bridge the gap between residents and healthy and affordable food. The closest retail outlet to this community is in fact a convenience store, located at the base of one of the apartment buildings, and the store owners are keen to provide healthier and more affordable food options to their customers. The Food Strategy Team is collaborating with the East Scarborough Storefront (the local community hub) and the proprietors to transform the store in order to better serve the community.

Community Engagement

Engagement with local residents has been integral to the development of this pilot project. The success of the project will depend on building healthy relationships between the store owners and their customers. This includes the community’s involvement in determining what “healthy” food is for them.

At the end of last year there were two focus groups with the youth of the community to discuss their food challenges and needs and how their local convenience store could better serve them. These focus groups illuminated the key food priorities for the youth of the community:  better access to affordable fresh food, especially to their cultural foods, that could be used to make meals from scratch.

Currently, the Food Strategy Team and the East Scarborough Storefront are conducting detailed surveys with hundreds of community residents to ensure the corner store conversion meets their food needs.

Widespread Support for the Project

The Healthy Corner Store project is supported by a diverse range of stakeholders from across the City. Last month, the Food Strategy Team held a meeting with experts from food distribution, marketing, academia, finance, architecture, and store owners to discuss how small retailers can be supported to sell healthier foods while remaining profitable. The meeting was also attended by special guest James Johnson-Piett who is a champion for healthy urban food in the U.S. and the co-convenor of the National Healthy Corner Stores Network. James shared the lessons he has learned from being at the forefront of hundreds of healthy corner store projects across the U.S. By providing examples of the various approaches taken to successfully implement healthy corner store projects in Pennsylvania, Detroit, New York City, and Philadelphia, James’ presentation inspired a fruitful discussion about what is needed to support this initiative in Toronto.

A City-wide vision

The Healthy Corner Store pilot project is just the beginning of the vision for Toronto. There are approximately 2000 other convenience stores across the City that could undergo a “healthy corner store” conversion. It is hoped that the pilot project will help to develop a “toolkit” of solutions to facilitate the profitable transformation of convenience stores across the City in order to improve the access of Torontonians to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food.

For more information about the Toronto Food Strategy’s projects stay tuned to this blog.