Understanding our local food environment

Doug MacMillan • 2 February 2022
box of vegetables

According to Cornell University researchers, consumers make an average of 200 food-related decisions every day about what, where, when, and how much to eat. Most of these decisions are unconscious, shaped by the surrounding food environment: the physical, social, economic, cultural, and political factors that impact access to nutritious food.

For the past two years, Our Food Future has been scrutinizing the food environment in Guelph-Wellington. 

We used GIS technology to map retail food outlets and community agriculture spaces. We audited grocery stores, looking at the availability, affordability, and promotion of nutritious foods. We conducted surveys, focus groups, and interviews with residents about eating habits and the barriers that make nutritious eating difficult. We reviewed municipal policies, we scanned educational programs, and we examined food access programs.

The result is Guelph-Wellington’s first-ever Food Environment Assessment. Published in November 2021, it provides a detailed snapshot of food access in Guelph and Wellington County, including physical access; economic access; food and nutrition knowledge and food skills; and marketing, promotion and celebration of food. The report revealed many strengths. However, it also highlighted a number of gaps and issues. 

For example, one in eight residents experience food insecurity. And for nearly 60 per cent of them, lack of transportation to grocery stores is a barrier to accessing nutritious food. Meanwhile, a scan of outdoor billboards and signage reveals that many elementary and secondary schools are located near retail food outlets, which regularly expose students to ads for ultra-processed foods.

The findings establish a baseline to measure the impact of interventions to increase access to nutritious foods. It will also facilitate conversation and community engagement, helping to shape a Food Security and Health Action Plan that ensures nutritious foods are available, accessible, and affordable to everyone in Guelph-Wellington.