Putting community food environments in the spotlight

Food environments may be a newer area of study, but they’re a subject that impacts the lives of millions of Canadians in both rural and urban areas

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A newly published supplement in the Canadian Journal of Public Health owes a lot to work being done by a small team of researchers within the College of Medicine.

The supplement, ‘Retail Food Environments in Canada’, is the first of its kind in Canada and deals with an area of research that is barely a decade old.

“It’s (a field) where there was basically no research prior to 2005,” said Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer, who authored or co-authored four of the 12 publications cited in the supplement. “We hosted in Saskatoon a conference last year called Food Environments in Canada Symposium, and invited some keynote speakers from across the country representing different regions, and different focuses of research.”

Following the conference a group of researchers approached the CJPH, with the support of Health Canada, expressing an interest in creating the supplement.

“We approached the journal and said ‘We’d like to put together a supplement based on this conference,’” Engler-Stringer continued. “So we sent out a call for abstracts among the researchers who had been at the conference and put together this prospectus for the supplement, and have been working on it for the last year.”

Food environments may be a newer area of study, but they’re a subject that impacts the lives of millions of Canadians in both rural and urban areas. A food environment covers everything from geographical and structural elements, to the information and media that shapes food purchasing and consumptions patterns.

“The way we talk about it is as something called ‘the community food environment’ – so that is where stores are located – so those kinds of geographical pieces,” explained Engler-Stringer. “Second is what we call the consumer food environment, which is what people encounter when they go into a place to buy food whether it’s a restaurant or a store.

“So are you in the store, and the vast majority of the food available is unhealthy food? Are you bombarded by messaging that is encouraging you to eat larger portion sizes?”

In addition to that, the researchers often talk about organizational food environments – so institutional food environments like schools, workplaces and hospitals – and information environments.

“Are we allowing advertising to children, for example,” she continued. Which is something that is allowed across the country save for Quebec, which has more restrictive advertising regulations that makes it illegal to advertise directly to children under the age of 13.

“So it’s both the structures, so how our cities are designed, as well as what the messaging is around us, and what we encounter when we go to make food purchases.”

Engler-Stringer, who has a background in Nutrition, and her co-PI Nazeem Muhajarine, who is a social epidemiologist with an interest in children’s health, started their combined research in 2010. With the focus currently on Saskatoon, Engler-Stringer can literally see the food inequities in her own backyard.

“Why is it that (for) someone who lives in Pleasant Hill the foods that they have available to them in their geographic surroundings is primarily fast food?” Engler-Stringer asks. “Potato chips and pop in convenience stores and gas stations – there is very limited access to fresh vegetables and fruit.

“Why is it that’s what someone in Pleasant Hill encounters versus somebody who lives in Lakeview or Caswell Hill, my neighbourhood, where we have a Safeway and have good geographic access to healthy food sources?”

It’s research that has never been done in Saskatchewan, but is gaining traction in the media as large American, and Canadian, urban centres deal with extensively documented ‘Food Deserts’ which refers to neighbourhoods, like Pleasant Hill, which has few to no options in terms of healthy food.

The publication of the supplement was just the first step for Engler-Stringer and her team of researchers, who have now turned their eye to what children are eating in schools across the Saskatoon Health Region.

“Our team is going to go in and do a baseline study of what children are bringing to school,” Engler-Stringer said. “So we’re going to look both at the kids who bring food from home as well as the kids who participate in meal programs that exist in some of the core schools, and we really just want to do a basic characterization of what is being consumed by kids at school.”

Coupled with their hope to commence looking at the food environments in rural Saskatchewan, a challenging task in of itself, there’s no shortage of research for Engler-Stringer and her team to expand on.