01/18/2016 07:21 EST | Updated 01/22/2016 11:59 EST

Alberta Food Deserts: Calgary, Edmonton Lacking Healthy Food Access, Study Says

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Downtown Calgary and Edmonton residents currently lack access to healthy food, says a study out of the University of Alberta (U of A).

"Many residents seek opportunities to shop on foot and increasingly, many inner-city residents do not have access to cars. As a result, conveniently located grocery stores have become increasingly important," reads the study's introduction.

And such stores are few and far between for the car-less downtown dwellers of Alberta's major cities, it said.

calgary food access

This map shows the locations of existing and planned grocery stores in Calgary's downtown. The circles in green are existing grocery stores, the circles in red are the ones that have been proposed. (Photo: Grocery Stores in Canadian Urban Centres)

A "food desert" is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an area with poor access to healthy, affordable food.

Studies have pegged areas as "food deserts" when they have fewer than three square feet of grocery retail per capita. Four to five square feet are considered "desirable."

Numbers contained in the U of A study indicate that there are only 3.33 square feet of grocery store per capita in Calgary's downtown. In downtown Edmonton, the number is 2.69 square feet per capita.

"Edmonton, in my opinion, currently doesn’t have a healthy downtown."

The study noted that for a grocery store to be "walkable," it shouldn't be further than 500 metres away from a resident's home.

In that light, it honed in on five, 500-metre radiuses in downtown Calgary and four in Edmonton.

The area around Calgary's 11th Avenue SW and 4th Street SW has 10,948 people and no grocery store. Meanwhile, Edmonton's Jasper Avenue and 114 Street area is home to 11,336 people. And again, no grocery store.

'Food deserts'

Downtown Calgary has four grocery stores in total, with four more planned. Two of the planned stores, Loblaws and Urban Fare, have signed leases to locate there.

Downtown Edmonton fares even worse, with only three grocery stores. Four more grocery stores have been proposed there.

Both cities are a far cry from Vancouver, which has 19 stores to help 126,000 residents access healthy groceries, the study noted.

edmonton food access

This map shows where grocery stores are located in Edmonton's downtown. The circles in green are existing grocery stores, the circles in red are the ones that have been proposed. (Photo: Grocery Stores in Canadian Urban Centres)

“A healthy downtown and a healthy downtown population make a healthy city. Edmonton, in my opinion, currently doesn’t have a healthy downtown,” study co-author Craig Patterson told The Edmonton Sun.

Why Alberta?

Alberta's situation is unique, said co-author Kyle Murray.

Albertans living downtown tend to drive to the suburbs to shop at big-box stores, Murray told CBC News.

Those that don't end up paying more money, he said.

The study said Calgary's downtown could use at least five more grocery stores, while downtown Edmonton has room for four.

However, not all experts agree with the study's proposals.

“This is a fun exercise in ‘nice to have’ rather than an examination of what is actually market feasible, which requires a far more nuanced examination of resident income levels, local consumer behaviours, traffic patterns and so on," Ian Meredith, a business consultant with Altus Group, told the Calgary Herald.

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