GROW Community Food Literacy Centre in Niagara Falls catches attention of groups across region hoping to fill gaps in access to healthy, affordable food
By Paul Forsyth Niagara This Week - Niagara Falls - May 18, 2022
Pam Farrell calls them “food deserts,” pockets of Niagara where people often living in low-income neighbourhoods face real barriers to accessing healthy food.
For the past two years, Farrell and other volunteers have been tackling that issue in downtown Niagara Falls through the GROW Community Food Literacy Centre, where people living below the low-income cut-off can get healthy food such as fresh fruit and produce at a weekly Saturday morning market at a fraction of what it would cost in a supermarket.
Word has spread across Niagara about the initiative, believed to be Canada’s first food literacy centre, from people and groups hoping to begin tackling the issue of food insecurity in their own communities.
Farrell, volunteer executive director of GROW, who has won recognition for her efforts to broaden access to healthy food choices, has listened: she hopes to soon have a new “GROW on the Go” mobile food service, bringing affordable, healthy food directly to areas of Niagara where the need is greatest.
“We’ve heard from all across the region that this type of model is something that is missing and it really fills that gap,” she said. ‘We have had so much interest in other communities and cities in the region to be able to access our Grow market program.”
Farrell has partnered with a New Brunswick company, Farmers’ Truck, which builds mobile market trucks that are operating across North America, with plans for a mobile market in Niagara.
She is applying for grants, but is also hoping local community partners, service clubs and other organizations come through with funding help to purchase the specialized truck with eco-friendly cooling technology and a design to accommodate people with disabilities. Farrell hopes to have the new mobile market up and running in 2023.
“In terms of reaching people, this mobile truck is the most sustainable and logical way of reaching people in food deserts across the region, with people with low incomes who can’t afford healthy food,” said Farrell.
Food banks in Niagara have been reporting record demand leading up to and during the pandemic. But research shows only a quarter to a fifth of households facing food insecurity access food banks, and they can typically only visit their food bank once or twice a month, said Farrell.
“It’s not a sustainable way of addressing food insecurity,” she said of food banks. “It’s very stigmatized. People don’t necessarily go to a food bank.”
Something that makes the food literacy centre model unique is the fact that clients purchase their food. While it’s greatly subsidized — peppers were recently selling at 75 cents for three versus $4 or $5 in a supermarket — Farrell said that’s empowering for clients.
Food deserts often result in poor health outcomes for people in low-income areas. Farrell said the vast majority of clients of the GROW centre have type 2 diabetes, which can lead to serious health conditions.
With soaring inflation pushing food prices to unheard-of levels, Farrell said the need to tackle food deserts is becoming more and more pressing. “It’s time for a shift in how we address food insecurity,” she said.
She is hoping local groups will help to determine where the best places for the new mobile market to stop will be. She foresees stopping at seniors' buildings, low-income housing and areas where post-secondary students who have food insecurity rates several times that of the general public tend to live.
“We’re able to target specific neighbourhoods, specific areas,” said Farrell.
The University of Calgary, where Farrell is a fourth-year doctoral candidate and focusing on the intersection of socio-cultural factors and food literacy, awarded her a 2022 sustainability award in late April.