Heading to the corner store for summertime sugary snacks is as much a part of childhood in rural Newfoundland and Labrador as collecting beach rocks and buckets of capelin.
In fact, in many parts of the province, the local corner store is the only accessible food retailer in the area. That means the stores’ locations and types of food they carry can have a big impact on the overall health of a community.
Dr. Catherine Mah, assistant professor, with the Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, at Memorial, and her team have been taking a close look at food businesses, the food environment in this province and how policies ― some of them seemingly unrelated to food — can have a big impact on the health, well-being and prosperity of a given region.
With funding from the Harris Centre’s Applied Research Fund, Dr. Mah’s team interviewed small-scale food retailers, restaurant owners, farmers who process secondary products and government representatives around the province. Initial findings of the research have revealed a complicated connection between policy and how these businesses could work in ways to support health.
“Even the most mundane municipal zoning policy can have a huge impact on health,” explained Dr. Mah. “Planning affects where retail food stores can be developed, how accessible they are, and consequently, the health of a given neighbourhood.”
Dr. Mah also cites economic development, transportation and road-clearing policies and resources as critically important to healthy food environments and food availability.
“We went out to talk to stakeholders about food; we ended up hearing about signs, parking and snow clearing,” she said. “We can’t address access to healthy food options and a healthier population without looking at the whole policy picture.”
Looking at the whole policy picture is just what Dr. Mah and her team plan to do. The initial $15,000 project has leveraged additional funding from both Health Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, along with Dr. Mah’s collaborators from across Canada, to launch the Food Policy Lab, a public health research and action organization based at Memorial. The aim of the lab is to study, test and scale health-promoting innovations in the food system ― taking an integrated policy approach and implementing locally relevant global best practices, then evaluating and sharing the lessons learned with other jurisdictions.
“The Food Policy Lab is about taking stock of existing policies, finding out how people are already using food to design innovative solutions for different kinds of policy problems, trying them out in the local context to see what might work and building capacity so others can jump on board,” said Dr. Mah.
The first of these pilot projects, led in partnership with the Food Security Network of Newfoundland and Labrador (Food First NL) and Eastern Health, includes a strategic inventory, mapping of the food retail environment across the province, and a pilot “corner store makeover” to help make it good business sense for a small, independent retailer to stock quality, healthier, local and affordable food products.
Many communities in this province, especially in rural areas, have limited access to food options nearby, explained Dr. Mah. However, Newfoundland and Labrador has the most corner stores per capita of any province in Canada ― about 1 for every 500 people. Because of this, communities are reliant on their local corner store for basic food essentials, and retailers face challenges in getting it to them.
“I have been working with collaborators at Toronto Public Health who have been testing a new business model called a “healthy corner store.” It has been tried in a number of communities across North America, typically in urban centres,” said Dr. Mah. “I’m a partner in the evaluation and we have learned about key challenges and what worked, so we launched a nomination process to see if this model could be adapted for rural Newfoundland and Labrador.”
The team has partnered with a corner store in the town of Branch on the Avalon Peninsula and has already begun the process of identifying what changes might be made to the store, and what policy barriers exist the team will have to overcome. Last month the team held a healthy corner store design charrette with food retailers, nutritionists, business advisors and other community and municipal sector stakeholders to examine what elements the new store will include, and what elements must be considered to ensure the operation remains profitable.
“There was a strong consensus that stores need to be highly customer service focused ― as small businesses they have the flexibility to be innovative and responsive to their customers, but the policy environment provides a lot of hurdles they have to overcome just to supply the basics,” said Dr. Mah. “It’s not an easy business they’re in, but they really provide a hub for their whole community. Corner stores are potentially a very important asset for promoting health. Through this research and pilot project, it’s our aim to provide some useful tools to help store owners foster successful businesses and contribute to healthy and vibrant communities.”