What does it mean to you? Reactions to Report on Urban Environmental Health Equity

Letter from June Matthews, PhD, RD, P.H.Ec.

As I read through the Final Report, I was deeply moved by local residents’ use of photography to assess socioeconomically diverse neighbourhoods. Striking and thought-provoking photographic comparisons prompted me to critically consider inequities in everyday life that I often take for granted (e.g., the thoroughness of garbage pickup depending on where you live; getting people ‘off the street’, but actively planning special events for others to use it). I also savoured the quotes that are a distinguishing feature of qualitative research.

As a Registered Dietitian and Professional Home Economist, I was especially interested in the many references to food. From the Vancouver portion of the study, the theme of ‘deservedness’ closely related to food, as eating nutritious, safe, and culturally-appropriate food is a universal need (and right). Differing perceptions of meal ‘bargains’ characterized the theme of ‘conspicuous inequality’; garden plants that were not vandalized supported the ‘importance of community’ theme; and the lack of green spaces and access to healthy food compounded the inequities associated with ‘exclusionary and inaccessible spaces’.

Similar references could be seen in the themes from Toronto: planter boxes in public congregation spaces could be filled with food instead of garbage, and community-driven development would value local access to affordable, nutritious food. The highlight, however, was the photograph of the HOPE community garden members. This is an excellent example of the power of food to connect people in a positive way and of seeing community ‘assets’ where many see only ‘needs’.

References to food were also woven throughout the themes from Winnipeg. Community gardens promote ‘connections and supports’, are an excellent ‘use of public space’, and, by engaging the community, contribute a sense of calm to combat ‘living in fear’. ‘Healthy child development’ is also supported by the theme of ‘nutrition and food’.

Food security encompasses everything from production, to processing, distribution, consumption and waste. Each of these steps in the food cycle is intimately linked with several areas of concern in every urban environment (e.g., transportation, zoning, employment, health, environment, education).  Food has enormous potential to enhance community health and well-being; therefore, addressing food affordability, accessibility, and availability, as well as food literacy, will lead to success in dealing with the environmental health inequities so aptly described in your report.

Congratulations on your SUCCEED project. This is a wonderful example of a grounded and holistic approach to understanding health inequities in urban environments. Great aspects of this project included resident involvement, prolonged length of engagement, and a perspective that valued a ‘social determinants of health’ approach.


June Matthews, PhD, RD, P.H.Ec.
Assistant Professor, Division of Food and Nutritional Sciences
Brescia University College at The University of Western Ontario
London  ON  N6G 1H2