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Pathfinder project #1

Guelph-Wellington Food Environment Assessment

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Project overview

The average person makes more than 200 food-related decisions every day: about what, when, where and how much to eat. Taste, cost and convenience are the biggest factors driving those decisions—and often they lead to less nutritious choices.

We want to understand and act on barriers that make nutritious eating difficult. We envision a food environment that makes better choices easy, where nutritious foods are available at an affordable price.

This project is providing baseline data about the current state of Guelph-Wellington’s food environment, allowing us to recognize assets, gaps and opportunities. We’re incorporating on-the-ground research, surveys and GIS mapping.

We’re also collaborating with the Guelph Family Health Study, which is testing new ways for families and children to learn nutritious habits early. This includes using their Family Council—a group of parents from families participating in the study—as a sounding board.

We’re looking at a number of different indicators of access, grouped into four categories:

  • Physical access,
  • Economic access,
  • Skills and knowledge to choose and prepare more nutritious foods, and
  • Marketing and promotion of nutritious foods.

By using big-data techniques to analyze all this information, we’re able to understand what we have, what’s working well, where the gaps lie and where there are the greatest opportunities to create positive change. This project also includes a public dashboard to mobilize data, support evidence-informed planning and track progress toward the impact goal.


To start, we decided on appropriate indicators for the Nutritious Foods workstream. We also began determining what research projects will be required to collect data on those indicators (see the data sources section below). Six research projects were designed to capture baseline indicators of interest.

1. Mapping

Create interactive maps to better understand neighborhood access to sources of nutritious foods in Guelph-Wellington.


  • Identify accessibility of retail food outlets, food access programs and supportive infrastructure, and
  • Identify geographic priorities for improving access.

2. Scans

Create inventories to better understand strengths and limitations of existing food programs and infrastructure in Guelph-Wellington.


  • Identify characteristics of food access programs, educational opportunities and supportive infrastructure, and
  • Reveal opportunities to improve or leverage existing assets.

3. Audits

Audit establishments that provide food to objectively understand aspects that influence food purchasing in Guelph-Wellington.


  • Identify availability, affordability and marketing of nutritious options in retail food outlets and institutional food service across Guelph-Wellington, and
  • Identify opportunities to encourage purchasing of nutritious foods.

4. Policy review

Review government and institutional policies to better understand how local government enables or hinders supportive food environments.


  • Identify the presence or absence of policies, regulatory barriers and resources allocated for prioritizing supportive food environments (at the municipal, provincial and federal level).

5. Community voice

Survey residents to subjectively understand their experience and aspects that influence healthy eating in Guelph-Wellington.


  • Identify facilitators and barriers to acquiring, selecting, purchasing, preparing and consuming nutritious foods, and
  • Identify opportunities to support residents in accessing and consuming nutritious foods.

6. Consumer behaviour

Objectively understand eating patterns in Guelph-Wellington.


  • Identify where people are accessing food and what they’re eating, and
  • Understand baseline eating patterns and ;intervention levers.

We envision this project unfolding as follows:

Step 1: Define the local context

Compile secondary data to determine what we already know about Guelph-Wellington’s food environment, who the priority populations are and what other information we need to collect. At the same time, consult with experts and review literature to identify possible food environmental interventions that have produced meaningful change elsewhere.

Step 2: Establish a plan to assess the food environment

Create a plan to implement the research areas mentioned above. Rather than reinvent the wheel, identify any existing initiatives that could be scaled up for this assessment, and explore potential partnerships and collaborations. Meanwhile, consult with experts and look at best practices for assessing elements of the food environment.

During this step, determine research questions and methods, establish roles and timelines and obtain research board ethical approval from Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health or the University of Guelph.

Step 3: Assess the food environment

With an assessment plan in place, begin implementing research projects, analyzing findings and layering information about our food environment to identify geographic and demographic priority areas.

Step 4: Communicate the assessment results

After analyzing the food environment assessment findings, share the results with stakeholders and the community. Hosting a community engagement event could help do that.

Step 5: Leverage results of the food environment assessment

Use the findings from the food environment assessment to inform the Food Security and Health Action Plan (page 20). These results help identify local priorities and opportunities, establish goals and targets, and establish processes and outcome objectives.

Sources of data

The data we’ve identified as of August 2020 is mainly provincial or national, including the census and results from the Canadian Community Health Survey. Because little data exists at the local level, we’re using a variety of research methods to gather the information we need, taking advantage of collaborations with university researchers to leverage our in-house capacity.

Supporting vulnerable residents—identifying needs and coordinating action

Times of crisis can remind us that food is a fundamental requirement to meet our basic needs. We recognize that residents may be facing additional barriers to accessing affordable nutritious foods during the COVID-19 pandemic. This project aims to collect information about those barriers. The data will help us establish local priorities in the short term and long term to prevent and mitigate secondary pandemic impacts and support vulnerable populations. 

Activities include developing and administering a community-wide survey to capture the experience of individuals in Guelph-Wellington. Questions explore the most significant barriers to accessing nutritious foods during COVID-19 and food insecurity experiences during COVID-19. 

It also involves developing and facilitating focus groups to capture the experience of community partners. Here, questions explore demands and challenges during a pandemic, local food response and opportunities for system improvements. 

Finally, it includes analyzing secondary data sources. Sources may include Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health’s COVID-19 Call Centre logs, the Guelph Family Health Study COVID-19 Impacts Survey and metrics from emergency food programs.

Challenges and lessons learned

Setting appropriate research parameters: Assessing the local food environment is a research-intensive undertaking. One of our ongoing challenges is to balance the rigour of our research and the granularity of the data we collect against practical constraints of time and resources. To enhance our capacity, we’re working with university researchers wherever possible.

Setting common terms of reference: Because this is a huge topic, there are many stakeholders involved. We are still learning who needs to be at the table. Meanwhile, it’s important to have terms of reference so that everyone has the same expectations. 

Terminology: Because people need to eat a variety of foods to create a balanced diet, it’s difficult to categorize any particular food item as “healthy” or “unhealthy.” We want to encourage people to have a positive relationship with food, rather than stigmatize choices. Therefore, rather than define foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” for measurement purposes we’ve chosen to focus on the level of processing involved, using the NOVA classification system recognized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization . This system also aligns with national guidelines for healthy eating (Canada’s Food Guide).

However, based on feedback from the Guelph Family Health Study’s family council, we’re using the terms “nutritious” and “less nutritious” in public-facing documents. 



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