Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Jason Gilliland

2nd Supervisor

Dr. Godwin Arku

Joint Supervisor


Food is a basic element of life—yet for many the spatial and economic configuration of the conventional food system does not meet nutritional needs and creates issues of food insecurity. In turn, a poorly constituted diet contributes to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Researchers can play a role in evaluating these disparities and exploring relevant options for policy change. But the dominant ‘food desert’ discourse often focuses uncritically on conceptions of access which lack depth. Understanding the nuances of this concept is important for moving into meaningful policy action. Drawing on ideas from the ecological model of health and various theories of consumer choice, this dissertation challenges the methodological and theoretical assumptions of discourse on food deserts by answering:

  • What methods are empirically most effective for evaluating spatial and socioeconomic inequalities in food access, and what patterns emerge from using these methods?
  • Do inequalities in access to nutritious food translate into differences in shopping or consumption patterns?
  • How do advocates and decision-makers within local and alternative food systems make use of evidence to inform policy on food accessibility and nutrition?

Results indicate that while disparities do exist in access to nutritious foods, they are not typically systematic among low-income populations. In addition, food retail simultaneously offers an opportunity to build the economy and presents an option for healthy eating. An evaluation of a new food retail source suggests that although food insecure, low-income, less-educated, and minority populations tend to have poorer dietary habits, differences in diet are not associated with geographic access to nutritious foods. Surveyed and interviewed policy-makers primarily agreed with established research on this topic, and indicated a set of principles focused on strengthening food systems in the form of local food production and local food policy change.

Policy should focus on behavioural determinants of health and macro-level geographical issues as opposed to micro-scale conceptions of food deserts. Recognizing the limits of translating research into policy and in devising effective food-based interventions, policy options are suggested which are sensitive to social, financial and political constraints, and which embrace notions of empowerment and opportunity.