North Kingston’s food desert

Closure of region’s only grocery store caused ‘uneven access to essential services,’ says geography doctoral student

Since the December 2006 closure of the IGA in Kingslake Plaza, there isn’t a grocery store within walking distance for many residents of the Rideau Heights neighbourhood.
Since the December 2006 closure of the IGA in Kingslake Plaza, there isn’t a grocery store within walking distance for many residents of the Rideau Heights neighbourhood.

In the midst of Sara Meers’ mounds of municipal paperwork for the North Kingston retail developments lies a sleek, white folder.

It’s the promotional package for the forthcoming Division Street retail development. The company is Knightstone Capital Management, the project’s name is King’s Crossing and the tagline is “Kingston’s Jewel.”

Meers, ArtSci ’07, is the city councillor for Cataraqui district, which includes the Rideau Heights area, home to the development.

Construction is now underway on King’s Crossing, which is the first attempt to create commercial retail for Rideau Heights since their only grocery store, an IGA in the Kingslake plaza on Division Street near Highway 401, permanently closed its doors last December.

The 78-acre King’s Crossing project will incorporate Kingslake plaza and is intended to serve the North Kingston area, which reaches from north of Princess Street to Highway 401 and west from the water to Division Street.

The corporate package, which describes the site as a “prime location in one of Ontario’s leading cities,” reads as if the area were an expanse of untapped opportunity and economic potential—not a low-income community with 28.6 per cent home ownership and an average family income less than half the city average.

“It looks really good,” Meers said of the development plans. “The plans are now for the No Frills as well as the Canadian Tire. They’re looking at redeveloping the Kingslake plaza, which will include more of an essential services area. All the applications are pretty much approved at this point and they’re starting construction now.”

According to Knightstone’s website, the plaza will include a 50-acre “power centre” for large-format retail, hotels and a grocery store. Twelve acres will be developed specifically for fashion retailers and an additional 15 acres will be developed for further retail commercial uses. Stores will start to open this summer.

This project, which will use approximately 525,000 square feet of vacant land, is, in part, the city’s response to the lack of food retail in the area, Meers said.

Once they learned of the IGA’s planned withdrawal from the area last year, the John Howard Society (JHS)—a national organization that works with people affected by the criminal system and their families, and whose Kingston branch identifies the majority of

their client base in Rideau Heights—began calling marketing representatives from major grocery stores to inquire about any planned moves into the area. According to a follow-up report prepared last December by JHS representatives and members of the Queen’s geography department, the response was entirely negative—the representatives said operating a store in North Kingston would be “uneconomic.”

“I think the most important thing about the north end ... is that it’s a desert,” said Lisa Finateri, executive director of the Kingston JHS branch.

“Not just a food desert, it’s a social service desert, it’s an employment desert. I mean we call it a ghetto, but even most ghettos have corner stores and local stuff—there’s nothing.”

To determine how detrimental the closure of the area’s only grocery store would be, JHS members got help from the Queen’s geography department. They contacted Professor Betsy Donald who put them in partnership with Melanie Bedore, a doctoral candidate whose research focuses on social justice in cities in a food context.

With a handful of student volunteers and JHS assistance, Bedore administered surveys over the course of four days last December, talking to 278 households, representing more than 10 per cent of the households.

The results were palpable: a community generally unaware of the forthcoming grocery store closure where over 65 per cent of the population faced barriers accessing a grocery store. It marked the beginnings of a food desert.

To Bedore, this is why the services of the Rideau Heights community should raise more concern in municipal discourse.

“It brings up issues of uneven access to essential services,” she said. “You have things like access to schools, and access to hospitals and police services, these things that are part of your rights as a citizen. But for some reason, we tend to think of food as something different because you’re expected to be able to pay for food—food is a commodity, it’s in the marketplace.” Unlike other neighbourhoods in Kingston, there are no grocery stores within walking distance of the Rideau Heights region. Low levels of car ownership prevent residents from easily accessing other stores.

“I think you wouldn’t call the suburbs or new housing developments in Kingston a ‘food desert’ because car ownership is so high that it’s just not a problem,” Bedore said.

“But here, you have these two forces coming together. You have low car ownership and you’ve got access problems, and I think that’s what comes together to make a ‘food desert’ and a research opportunity that’s worth looking into.”

Furthermore, she said, many residents are unaware of reasons for the IGA’s close a year ago and don’t know the details of the upcoming Knightstone project. Bedore said a lack of municipal concern for the community is to blame.

“This is hard because class is an issue that brings up a lot of embarrassment and discomfort for people, but I think the reality is that when we were talking to people last December, a lot of people felt really disenfranchised that nobody had come to them to talk.

“Nobody cared that North Kingston is just the invisible population that the rest of the city likes to avoid discussing if possible. So an event like this just makes people feel even more unheard,” she said.

“And so I couldn’t understand—somehow people were not receiving information that is relevant to their own livelihoods. I see a real problem in terms of a transfer, a complete cycle of information that is not getting to people.”

Andy Simmons, JHS co-ordinator of employment assistance services, blames the North Kingston “food desert” on a lack of city planning. He said the problem is magnified because Kingston Transit doesn’t provide adequate services.

A lack of travel flexibility leads to the limitation of retail options which, in an area such as Rideau Heights, can result in reliance on convenience stores and fast food, he said.

“Buses run too far apart, they don’t run through certain parts of the neighbourhood. Transportation is terrible. Services that we all pay for as taxpayers are not accessible to that section of the city,” he said.

“If they want to go to welfare, to drop in their income statement for the month, it’s a $14.50 cab ride one way to drop off your slip. And when you’re on fixed income, that becomes an unmoveable percentage of your income that is going to not feeding your children.”

North Kingston residents need access to fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, Simmons said.

“There’s still no access to that in the north end unless you travel.What we were essentially worried about was that parents might be feeding their children $1.39 McDonald’s specials, rather than fresh fruit and vegetables, and going to the corner store, buying cereal and milk,” Simmons said.

Two public schools in the region—J.D. Simcoe and Rideau Public—have among the lowest scholastic results in the city, Simmons said.

“If you walk through there and watch behaviour and the actual appearance of children out in that end—lots of obese kids, lots of small, hyperactive kids, and lots of acting out going on. And some of that is societal, and some of that is nutrition.”

Frank Reeves has volunteered in the North Kingston area in various organizations including Better Beginnings and North Kingston Community Health Centre, for the past 11 years and lived there for eight of those years.

After giving away his car due to expenses, the 56-year-old had to rely on his legs on many occasions—a sacrifice that, in his mind, isn’t possible for many of his fellow community members.

“I’ve done that before from the IGA up here. I used to take my two-wheel cart. Hauling it uphill, that’s not easy, but I do it. It takes a good 20 to 25 minutes up, across and over that hill. That hill’s quite steep. I did it, but that’s me—I’m young at heart,” Reeves said.

“It’s something that they necessarily need over there in the Heights, a grocery store.” Without it, he said, they’re lost.

Health Studies professor Elaine Power is involved in a study looking at the grocery shopping practices of low-income people in Canada. She describes the food insecurity of these ‘deserts’ as a recurring epidemic in low-income areas.

“Food and security can be broken into three levels: one is anxiety about having enough to eat, the second is changing the quality of the food that you eat—instead of picking the things that you’d like, you buy cheaper things; and the final level is going without food, and that might be skipping a meal or eating really small portions,” Power said.

“If you’re only doing one grocery shopping trip a month, fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t going to last, so you buy frozen things and cans to last you the month.”

Although she acknowledges the unfortunate circumstances caused by the close of the IGA, Meers said it was simply an issue of bad timing, describing the municipal council as having their “hands tied as far as incentives and bonuses and things go.

“I don’t think it was the fault of city planning in any way because when you look at our official plan and our zoning for that area, they all complimented retail and commercial development in that area. I think that the unfortunate thing is that it was just bad timing and I guess you can’t turn back time.”

However, she said, the matter could have been handled better by the city. Managerial planning could have ensured there was a grocery store access in the interim period.

“There were things [city council] could’ve done, but I guess I was limited in my resources as well. I was hoping more people would come forward with suggestions.”

She said the new retail development in the area will be aimed at being “people friendly” and accessible.

Meers said within the vicinity of two city blocks, the King’s Crossing project will create a condensed retail environment conducive to a throng of strip mall stores and several big box outlets in the “power centre” and “fashion centre,” respectively. Throw in the likely addition of a restaurant in the one acre “stand alone” of the development, and the former food desert will turn into a centre of consumer culture and retail consolidation.

Donald said this development, however, is an unacceptable shift to the opposite extreme.

“I think that it behoves on us as a society to look at this issue critically and turn our attention to how we are zoning our landscapes. Are we permitting this kind of retail to emerge at the expense of not investing in our communities?”

she said.

The introduction of a large retail landscape to the North Kingston community brings about the potential for gentrification, which could eventually lead to the displacement and relocation of Kingston’s “ghetto.”

She said development—such as the construction of “big box” stores like Wal-mart in Kingston’s west end—often comes at a cost. “It’s fine to have choice but at what point are you building that kind of development at the expense of killing the golden goose that laid the very egg that made this town attractive and sustainable and vibrant?”

North Kingston facts

• 61 per cent of families in the area considered the closed IGA store their primary source of groceries

• 61.75 per cent of residents surveyed said transportation was a barrier to their use of a major grocery store.

• Prior to the closure of the IGA, 84 per cent of respondents said they purchased fresh fruits or vegetables in the past two weeks. Just over half of those said the purchases were made at the IGA.

• 15 per cent of residents said they were unsure where they would do their grocery shopping following the closure of the IGA

• Based on calculations that half of the neighbourhood spend $150 per month and the other half spend $200 per month on groceries, there is a minimum of $437,000 per month in available grocery spending in the area.

Source: North Kingston Grocery Store Survey

North Kingston vs. Kingston

NeighbourhoodCityTotal population: 6,095 114,195Average family income: $33,585 $68,396Average household size: 2.42.4Percentage of homeownership: 28.658.4

Source: North Kingston Grocery Store Survey

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