Where there is no food store, core neighborhoods start their own

By Tyler McCreary and Richard Milligan

June/July 2006

“PROSPERITY DOTH BEST DISCOVER vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.” So said Francis Bacon. If his maxim holds true, then residents of Saskatoon’s west-side core communities should be deemed virtuous indeed, organizing to meet community needs in the face of tremendous adversity. While poverty rates in Saskatoon have remained relatively constant over the past twenty years, residents living in poverty have become increasingly concentrated in the core neighbourhoods on the west side. Annual income in these neighbourhoods is roughly half the city average of $62,451. More than forty percent of families living on the west side survive on less than $20,000 a year.

The difficulties posed by these realities are intensified by current approaches to city planning. Most municipal governments and developers alike tend to overlook older and low-income neighbourhoods as candidates for housing and business development dollars, favouring instead newer, more affluent, and often suburban neighbourhoods as targets for development. The result is a flight of investment, services, and amenities from inner-city neighbourhoods. The current situation in Saskatoon’s west-side neighbourhoods constitutes a textbook example of this phenomenon.

In Saskatoon’s west-side core neighbourhoods, access to grocery retail establishments has diminished greatly since the mid 1980s. Since then, six major grocery retailers have closed on Saskatoon’s west side, including three within the core neighbourhoods, as well as three others in the downtown area. Many inner-city residents do not have access to a major grocery store within their neighbourhoods. They are living in what has become known as a “food desert”—-an area with limited access to healthy and affordable food.

The emergence of a food desert in already-stressed neighbourhoods like those in Saskatoon’s west side greatly undermines the viability of the communities. As local businesses and retailers have relocated to the suburban developments, west-side residents are increasingly forced to travel outside of their neighbourhoods to work, to bank, and to buy groceries—-taking their money out of the local economy. As more and more money flees the core communities, more and more jobs evaporate from the neighbourhood. Thus, a vicious cycle continues to compound the difficulties already facing west-side residents, as it grows increasingly difficult to work or shop in their own communities.

While the necessity of leaving one’s community to work, bank, or buy groceries may seem like no more than a minor inconvenience, it constitutes a serious obstacle for west-side residents, who have the lowest rates of vehicle ownership in the city. Without a vehicle, residents with the least resources face the greatest barriers to access services or work. Public transit is a wonderful resource, but it doesn’t take many attempts at managing three children and six bags of groceries on a crowded bus before one seeks out alternatives. Many residents without vehicles must either negotiate arrangements to catch a ride with friends or family to do shopping, or struggle to make do with the limited food options in the neighbourhood.

Many inner-city residents are living in what has become known as a ‘food desert’—-an area with limited access to healthy and affordable food.”

Building momentum

IN RESPONSE TO THE present situation, west-side residents have identified the need for a new grocery store to be located in the community and have begun organizing efforts to this end. Community organizations have begun working with residents on a project called Station 20 West to address issues of food security and core neighbourhood economic development. According to community activist Don Kossick, west-side residents are the driving force behind the project. “The concept and realization of Station 20 West came from within the core neighborhood communities,” Kossick said.

The Station 20 West project has gathered steam beyond its original focus solely on food access, as proponents of other development projects and services in the community have come aboard one after another. What started off as an effort to bring a grocery store into the neighbourhood now includes plans for other vital services, including a community housing project, a library, a public gathering space, and integrated health and social services.

The range of organizations contributing to the project speaks volumes about its broad appeal, and the promise people see in the initiative. The City of Saskatoon is currently cleaning up a vacant site in the core neighbourhood where the development will be located. The Saskatchewan Housing Corporation has committed to developing fifty-seven housing units, as well as space for a library branch, and is hoping to begin construction this summer. The grocery store has incorporated as a co-op, and is currently organizing to raise start-up funds. And plans are currently in the works for a community enterprise centre, which will house the grocery store on the main floor.

The enterprise centre will also be home to various organizations serving the core neighbourhoods, including Quint Development Corporation, the College of Dentistry Outreach Clinic, AIDS Saskatoon, and CHEP Good Food Inc. (formerly the Child Hunger Education Program).

Further initiatives designed to foster a more vibrant community include community gardens, a cafe, and a station platform for use by merchants and entertainers. The Station 20 West project will create jobs in the community, attract investment to the city core, keep money in the local economy, and provide services necessary for neighbourhood revitalization.

Len Usiskin, director of Quint Development Corporation, elaborates on how the synergy generated by co-operation among different organizations improves service and builds community: “Shared spaces and resources … reduce costs and increase efficiency. By actively forming relationships and building on the strengths and interests of each organization, more effective and comprehensive services will be offered.” For example, Quint, a community economic development agency for Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods, has found that its efforts to support investment in Saskatoon’s core have been bolstered and enriched through collaboration with CHEP, whose focus is on food security issues. The food store is but one of the achievements made possible through such synergies.

Don Kossick contrasts the Station 20 West community development approach with the big-box approach that continues to be foisted upon municipalities. For partners in the Station 20 West project, it is the needs of the community, rather than profit maximization, which guide development. Kossick also makes it clear that the process shouldn’t be rushed: “any good community development strategy of building wealth in community has to take the time to work with and listen to what people want in their neighbourhoods.”

“The goal of sustainable and healthy cities will remain elusive if we do not address the basic issues of access to food in one’s own neighbourhood.”

Development of, by, and for the community

THE COMMUNITY FOOD store will be a member-owned co-operative whose operations are driven by the needs and desires of local residents. Karen Archibald, director of CHEP Good Food Inc, explains that Station 20 West will be founded on a “community development perspective based on the recognition of poor people’s entitlement to food, to housing, to community.” The project will engage and support residents in building the kind of community they want—-an innovative approach in a time when the needs of communities are often sacrificed in the search for profit.

Community input is a vital part of any effort to find workable solutions to the problems facing stressed neighbourhoods like those on Saskatoon’s west side. To remain viable as a business and useful to residents, the grocery store at Station 20 West will need to respond to the needs and preferences expressed by community members. The food store will sell pop and chips, and even cigarettes. As Len Usiskin says, “for all its deficiencies, a grocery store is what this community needs.” While many activists idealize healthier diets and habits, viable solutions need to meet people where they are and then move from there. This store will make junk food available, while promoting healthy alternatives.

Meeting west-side communities’ needs is what Station 20 West is all about. The project presents a model for community-based economic development that not only addresses pressing social issues, but also works toward environmental sustainability. Contrary to the tenor of much mainstream green rhetoric, environmental sustainability is impossible without social sustainability.

Station 20 West provides a good example of how socially and environmentally sustainable development can, and must, happen. The community enterprise centre is seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) approval for their environmentally sensible design. The store will offer local and organic products at a reasonable price. And the development will clean up and reclaim what was once vacant, contaminated land beside the railway tracks and put it to use as a safe, convenient, and inviting destination for members of the community.

The Station 20 West project resists the market forces behind car-centered, big-box consumer culture and the seemingly relentless march to the suburbs. This resistance goes beyond the sort of “lifestyle” resistance practiced by some middle-class consumers who make their own lives greener through a set of consumer and lifestyle choices. Rather, the Station 20 West approach consists of making it possible for residents of Saskatoon�s west side to buy groceries, to go to the library, to visit the dentist—-in short, to do many of the things necessary for life in any community—-all without having to travel a considerable distance out of their neighbourhoods. In essence, the Station 20 West project not only improves the lives of residents in these communities by giving them local access to services they didn’t have before, but it also makes it easier for them to make healthier and more sustainable choices like driving less and buying local produce.

There is a larger lesson to be learned here. No matter how many of those who have the privilege of choosing where to shop and what to buy attempt to reduce their personal environmental imprint, the goal of sustainable and healthy cities will remain elusive if we do not address the basic issue of access to food in one’s own neighbourhood. If residents of large communities —- whether they are affluent or not —- have no option but to drive out to the edge of town for food, greenhouse gas emissions will inevitably continue to increase. Furthermore, as long as the services continue to leave inner cities, people will continue to move to suburban settings, and our cities’ unsustainable patterns of growth will persist.

It is these unsustainable models to which Station 20 West provides a viable alternative. According to Don Kossick, the most significant lesson to be learned from Station 20 West is that “communities are quite capable of creating a common wealth. The key is investing in this capacity to do good economic development, for the benefit of all.” By working with residents of low-income communities on Saskatoon’s west side, partners in the Station 20 West project are revitalizing ailing neighbourhoods and building socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable communities.

This train is leaving the station. It’s in all of our best interests to hop on board.

Tyler McCreary and Richard Milligan study geography and culture at the University of Saskatchewan. They urgently await the train to glory, good local food, and ecologically sustainable, de-colonized communities.

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