The pending closure of a major grocery store in downtown Prince George, B.C., has sparked concerns that some of the city's poorest residents may not have easy access to affordable food.
Save-On-Foods, owned by the Jim Pattison Group, has confirmed it is moving its downtown location to Pine Centre Mall, roughly three kilometres away.
Though the distance may not make much of a difference to people who drive, it could have a major impact on those who walk or take transit to get their food, advocates say.
"This is leaving a lot of people, I fear, with very little options," said Torie Beram, a nurse who works with vulnerable people in the city. "You are giving people no choice but to go hungry, utilize food banks or have to find a way to get to the grocery store."
The issue of food deserts — urban areas without accessible, affordable food — is a growing concern across Canada. Research out of Winnipeg indicates areas without adequate grocery options tend to have higher rates of people with diabetes, with many surviving on convenience foods and canned goods.
Beram worries Save-On's departure will create another such food desert in the heart of northern B.C.'s most populous city, particularly among residents of nearby neighbourhoods with higher concentrations of poverty.
Many of her clients don't have vehicles, and even the cost of taking a taxi or having groceries delivered can be prohibitive. As a result, she said, they may be forced to take an hour round trip by foot or bus just to get supplies — a difficult task for single parents or elderly people, particularly during winter months.
Seniors, students impacted
The move also deals a blow to the city's downtown revitalization plans, which include the construction of student housing just a few blocks away from Save-On's current location.
"Very often students come to Prince George, they may not have a vehicle, and having access to good healthy food is important to them," said Coun. Murry Krause, who chairs the city's poverty reduction committee. "It's very disappointing on so many fronts."
Krause said the city's economic development wing will be reaching out to other major grocers in an attempt to entice them to take Save-On's place.
Some private citizens are doing the same. Kathleen Hebb said she is personally reaching out to retailers including Safeway and Sobey's in an attempt to get them to open up downtown. She said she is motivated by her own background being raised by a single parent on social assistance.
"To say, 'Just get a taxi, get on a bus, go that extra distance' ... is really putting up more barriers and also taking away a bit of money every week."
Darrin Rigo said he has a similar background — and similar concerns.
"I had a single mom who didn't have a car ... so we walked to the grocery store as a family, 20 minutes round trip each way," he said. Rigo mapped out what Save-On's move might mean for some of the people who live nearby and was concerned by what he found.
"It's a 40-minute-plus walk that requires crossing a highway and following a lot of busy arteries," he said. "I think back to my mom who was working two jobs at the time and probably just barely fitting all of this together — if that walk suddenly doubled in length ... I don't think she would have had many options."
The move is also a concern to seniors and young families who live in the nearby Millar Addition and Crescents neighbourhoods. While they might be able to afford a car, many chose to live near downtown so they could access services by foot.
Jeremy Morris, 30, said he just bought his first house in the Crescents in part because he would be able to walk to get groceries, and is disappointed that will soon change.
Barbara Robin, 78, is a retired real estate agent who moved close to downtown so she would be able to "walk everywhere" without having to cross any highways. She said the neighbourhoods close to downtown are popular among older people looking to downsize and have easier access to medical services, but the lack of a grocery store could be a barrier.
"We want to encourage growth downtown ... so I think it's only right we should have a grocery store in that area."
In the meantime, some smaller retailers are adjusting to the pending departure of Save-On. Birch and Boar, a small grocer specializing in locally-produced food, is expanding its hours to better serve people who need to pick up some items after work or on weekends. Co-owner Brian Quarmby said the shop is also talking to local farmers about expanding their produce options.
But, he said, he recognizes a specialty shop can't replace the role of a large grocery store and he would welcome the arrival of another chain in the neighbourhood.
"Especially with the seniors and that [vulnerable] community, they need something downtown."
To hear more about the impact of Save-On leaving downtown Prince George, tap the audio below: