Is access to healthy and affordable food – and a little support from the city – important to Winnipeg’s downtown? If discussion at a recent Downtown Community Food Forum is any indication, the answer is definitely.
An initiative of Food Matters Manitoba, the forum was part of the Downtown Community Food Assessment, which aims determine how people in the downtown community can better access healthy, sustainable and fair food.
Dozens of concerned citizens attended the forum at the Portage Place on Tuesday, April 30. Many live in nearby seniors’ residences or Manitoba Housing buildings, and are on limited incomes.
Richard Wilson is chair of The Downtowners Grocery Coalition, a group formed to advocate for a downtown grocery store after the Extra Foods on Notre Dame and the Zellers grocery store in the basement of The Bay shut their doors.
“We seem to be all in the same boat, we want to eat, and we want to eat well,” he says of downtown residents. “We don’t want to be running out to that corner store to get pop and chips on a regular basis.”
He says although there are many convenience stores, these do not offer the healthy options necessary. Residents are forced to take taxis to stores outside of the downtown, which puts further strain on already limited resources.
Plus, independence is a key issue for many residents – they want to be able to do their shopping on their own.
Although the need for a grocery store was the main topic of discussion at the forum, issues like nutrition knowledge, food preparation skills, feeding children and youth, school and community gardens, and access to locally-produced food were also discussed, and are key to ensuring food security. Forum attendees also stated they would welcome a farmers market in the area.
Wilson believes it’s the city’s responsibility to ensure there is an accessible, full-service grocery store downtown – even though city hall recently voted to task CentreVenture with the work rather than doing it themselves.
“A lot of us are living downtown because the city asked us to move down here,” Wilson said. “They asked us to move down because all of the amenities were here, including a grocery store. The grocery store is gone, and basically the city doesn’t seem to think there is a responsibility to the city itself.”
There have been rumors that a new multi-use development is slated for the former site of the Winnipeg Tribune building on Graham Avenue and will include a grocery store – but a formal announcement isn’t expected until the end of May.
In the meantime, Wilson is frustrated at what seems to be a never-ending stream of studies in to the issue.
“Has anybody stopped to watch the news in the last two years to see how many different surveys and analyses are being done downtown? It seems like there is more going in to survey and analyses than there is going in to trying to put a grocery store downtown.”
Despite reports that some grocery store owners won’t open shop downtown without the promise of on-site police support to curtail shoplifting, Wilson believes there are enough residents and workers downtown to support a grocery store.
About 27,000 people live downtown and another 70,000 commute downtown daily.
Wilson references a study in New York City that found for every 10,000 people a 30,000 square foot grocery store is the most important part of their community.
“The grocery store is the thing that draws people into that area. It keeps people healthy and it turns [the area] in to a vibrant community, which New York has proven,” he says.
Rita Denedchezhe knows how hard it is to purchase healthy, affordable food in the downtown. She has cerebral palsy and a learning disorder and lives in a downtown Manitoba Housing complex with her partner, who also has a disability.
“I try to eat as healthy as possible on a limited income, but I only get $100 a week,” she says. That weekly allowance must cover all her costs – food, clothing, transportation, phone, and anything else, she says.
For her it’s not only a grocery store downtown that’s important – but also a shift in perceptions about the importance of healthy food.
“I’d like to see the government recognize that disabilities affect everybody. People can have mental health issues, people can have physical disabilities, people could have medial issues, without food they can’t take their medication, or maybe they’re diabetic, or maybe they just need to eat just everyday food.”
She believes food is a universal right – and benefits us all.
“We’re all affected by food in some form. Of course we all would like to stay as healthy as possible so we can stay out of the hospital and out of nursing homes.”