BY Guillaume Laberge & Thomas Allitt

Ismael Boulay, 22, has been living in Saint-Henri for less than a year. It is one of many areas on the Island that is considered a food desert. That’s where someone lives more than a 10-minute walking distance from a supermarket or other source of fresh produce.

“Not only are grocery stores far from my house, but it’s even worse in some parts of the sector,” says Bouley.

More than half of the residential areas in Montreal are considered food deserts. On top of that, more than half the territory in eight different boroughs is considered a food desert.

empty milk aisle in a grocery store

Sales in regular grocery stores quickly boost demand, leading to empty shelves. Photo by Guillaume Laberge.

People who don’t have a car are especially affected, since they have to travel quite far.

Luckily for Boulay, he does own a car, which makes it easier for him to do groceries, but it still comes with his set of challenges. The two nearest grocery stores in his area are IGA, which takes a 10 to 15 minute walk, and a Super C, which is a 25 minute walk. Even though IGA is closer, he prefers to go to Super C.

“Super C is a lot cheaper than IGA. Food is almost double the price at IGA,” he says.

People in Saint-Henri are not the only ones living in a food desert. The highest percentages of areas being food deserts include Montreal-North with 93.9 per cent of the area being a food desert, Pierrefonds-Roxboro at 83.3 per cent, and L’Île-Bizard-Sainte-Geneviève at 79.4 per cent.

A map detailing the percentage of food deserts per Montreal borough, based on data from the City of Montreal. Map by Guillaume Laberge.

Food banks and community organisations have stepped in to help out in many areas. One of these organisations is L’Épicerie Paule et Émard in Côte-St-Paul.

“We started this project in 2017 to help improve the diet of people in need by selling good local products,” says Ninoska Santana, Food Coordinator at the grocery store.

L’Épicerie Paule et Émard sells a variety of healthy products including fresh fruits and vegetables, different meats and fish, spices, and other products normally found at a biological grocery store.

a view of Paule et Emard grocer

An exterior view of L’Épicerie Paule et Émard in Côte-St-Paul. Photo by Guillaume Laberge.

However, all foods are being sold cheaper than at a chain grocery store.

“We work with about sixty different suppliers, including several farms that provide us with organic vegetables and quality food,” says Santana.

Others are working towards a new food system where food can be grown year-round through greenhouses.

Growing fruits and vegetables year-round in Quebec is a delicate task. Thankfully greenhouses and stable indoor environments make it possible, but what about gardens who don’t have access to a greenhouse? Video by Thomas Allitt.

Another resource in different communities is food banks, such as Moisson Montréal. Founded in 1984, Moisson Montréal is one of the biggest food banks in Canada, supplying community organisations with nutritious food.

While food deserts were already a problem pre-COVID, the pandemic and rising inflation created a new demographic of people turning to food banks for help. More than one in five Montrealers are struggling to eat healthily.

“We see more people than before who have a house with a mortgage and find themselves at the point where they are faced with a choice of losing their house or paying for their groceries. We have a lot of new clients who are normally more comfortable economically, but suddenly find themselves going to food banks,” says Jean-François Dubé, Head of Communications at Moisson Montreal.

Main image by Guillaume Laberge.
Published June 9, 2023.