Suburbs, food deserts, and old-fashioned delivery trucks

by Yule Heibel on April 21, 2008

As it happened, Christopher Hume’s follow-up story today in the Toronto Star on the Leslieville big-box debacle, Wal-Mart and the city an uneasy mix (which I blogged about here), made some points that coincided nicely with a story by Shannon Proudfoot, which appeared in yesterday’s Province (Vancouver), about food deserts in cities: Suburbs cause ‘food deserts’ in cities; People stranded in low-income neighbourhoods have little choice.

Let’s start with food deserts in cities. From Proudfoot’s article:

The migration of supermarkets to the suburbs has left some Canadian cities with “food deserts” in their most vulnerable neighbourhoods, according to new research that counters previous studies suggesting that phenomenon wasn’t happening in this country.

Residents marooned in these grocery wastelands — usually those who can least afford it — have no easy access to stores that stock fresh, affordable food, researchers say, forcing them to pay inflated convenience-store prices or eat junk food.

These conclusions are based on 40 years of data, and researchers found that the situation is getting worse, with “the poorest neighbourhoods …the most stranded.”

“If you think about a single mother with limited income without a vehicle — if you can’t hop in your car and drive to a supermarket, you must shop locally,” Gilliland says. “You’re going to be buying your groceries at local convenience stores.”

That forces people to pay an average of 1.6 times more for groceries, he says, perpetuating a financial “downward spiral” for those already in a precarious position.

Better-off urbanites are turning to Zipcar services (car sharing services), which they then use to make those big runs to the suburbs (and the big-box discount stores):

Now they use Zipcar for day trips out of the city or bulk-buying missions that are more convenient and budget-friendly.

“If you work during the day, get off and want to do a grocery run, the buses would be packed and I couldn’t imagine having to carry that many groceries on a bus for your entire family,” MacPhee says. “It really does come down to convenience.”

Proudfoot concludes with the researcher’s advice that city councils must boost population density in cities so that grocers will locate there, too.

But if the grocer is also a retailer like Wal-Mart, that can be a real problem for urban cores, as Hume’s article makes clear. This is where Hume’s common-sense suggestion to bring back the delivery truck comes into play. As he points out, it used to be the case that no self-respecting city person lugged home tonnage from a shopping trip …because the delivery guy would deliver your goods to your home within hours.

So, if you’re going to put a big-box store into a downtown, get rid of the acres of surface parking for individual cars, get public transportation in, get people to walk or bike in, and let the delivery trucks do the delivering again. The money saved on all that parking would surely pay for a small fleet of vans that ferry goods to their purchasers.

In Toronto, the opposition to this suburban monstrosity with an ocean of parking lapping up prime urban real estate is fierce. But Hume then adds:

One wonders how different the response would have been had SmartCentres announced that it intended to build the city’s first no-parking mall. Sounds ridiculous, but maybe not, on second thought. Already there’s a mall in San Francisco that has no parking. Why not Toronto?

From here it’s a short hop (’cause you’re not driving, see) to the idea of the delivery truck:

Then there’s that revolutionary concept known as the delivery truck. Remember that? There was a time when the big stores – Eaton’s and Simpsons – all had their own fleets. In those days, few shoppers even considered schlepping home anything larger than a breadbasket. And let’s not forget the IGA on Danforth at Pape, which to this day has no parking on its premises.

Clearly, the time has come to bring back the delivery truck, and Eastern Ave. could be a perfect place to start. Of course, the Wal-Marts would have nothing to do with such a concept, but being Toronto’s first green shopping centre, Wal-Mart wouldn’t be wanted anyway.

Shoppers would walk or cycle to the centre, make their purchases, then walk or cycle home. The goods would show up later. Now that’s convenience.

“We think delivery is a great idea,” says Smith, who also points out that, “this is a huge evolution for us. None of us has a lot of urban experience.”

The return of the delivery truck could also address the problem of “food deserts” in urban cores. There is enough density already if you include the people who can’t afford to drive to the store.

Here in Victoria, several of our core and downtown grocers deliver for free, same day, if you shop before noon or 2pm and your order is over $25. The liquor stores (non-government, that is) figured this one out, too: right below Market on Yates (“Your uptown downtown grocery store” is, I believe, their slogan) on View Street there’s Harris Green Liquors, which not only delivers, but takes orders for home delivery over the phone. Cheers, eh?

Harris Green Liquors truck

Market on Yates delivery plug
Above: Market on Yates delivery ad as seen on the website.

Left: Harris Green Liquor Merchants delivery truck.  They also use a regular       car…

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