Food Strategy Update: Food Retail Mapping in Toronto


Density less healthy by DAs & per 1000

Led by Brian Cook, The Food Strategy team has been coordinating research to identify spatial relationships among economic, social and health indicators as they relate to healthy food sources in Toronto. Working with a number of key partners, such as the City’s Social Policy Analysis & Research team and Toronto Public Health’s Healthy Environment staff, the research is focused on questions such as: Are there so-called “food deserts” in Toronto? How should they be measured? Are there significant trends over the last 20 years in the geographic distribution of healthier and less healthy food retail locations?

A significant number of Torontonians face economic and geographic barriers to accessing healthy and culturally appropriate food on a regular basis. There’s no question that income is the most significant prerequisite to sourcing healthy food in our city, but it’s also important to understand how various environmental factors create a layering of disadvantage in different communities. Many people live in neighbourhoods that have few quality and affordable food retail options within easy walking distance, along with relatively poor access to public transit. These urban areas have been labelled by some as “food deserts”, though there is no consensus about how to defined this term.

So far the research has uncovered a number of findings. For example, residents in many lower income areas outside of the downtown core are more than one kilometre walking distance to a supermarket. Higher distances to supermarkets are not a result of large food retailers ignoring lower income areas. Toronto has one of the continent’s most well-developed food retail sectors. Typically there are few large, commercially zoned sites available or the areas have curvilinear street patterns and/or ravine spaces that increase walking distance to the closest supermarkets.

Research from other jurisdictions has shown that supermarket proximity is not the best measure of healthy food access, so our project is looking also at broader food retail environments. We worked with TPH Dietitians to develop a definition of “healthier” vs “less healthy” food retail and mapped the density of each category per 1,000 residents. No obvious patterns emerged. Some lower income areas have a high density of “less healthy” food retail but others are well served by “healthier” retail. Similarly, our preliminary analysis of changes in food retail from 1991 to 2011 has not shown dominant patterns connecting lower income neighbourhoods and “less healthy” food retail density. The next step will be to draft and test a food retail environment index that will allow for a more nuanced analysis of healthy food access. We hope that the index will address food price, quality and diversity.

The research continues to inform many of the Food Strategy’s projects, including the Mobile Good Food Market that sells fresh produce in lower income tower communities. Further analyses will support our ability to identify specific roles that the City of Toronto can play in enabling better access to good food for all Torontonians.