When I hear the term ‘food desert’, it conjures up images of a barren urban wasteland with nary a source of healthy food in sight — perhaps a corner store stocked with cheap foods of convenience that are high in calories and low in nutritional value.
This term has become so ubiquitous in conversation with the civic-minded and community-engaged set, being generally defined as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. According to several research studies, including a 2017 project led by researchers from the University of Guelph with an aim of identifying urban food deserts using data mapping, food deserts are indeed a prominent issue in Hamilton. The study found what many Hamiltonians know to be true from experience: there are clear disparities in the access to food services in Hamilton and these disparities arise due to a lack of transportation, distance from grocery stores, and income insufficiency.
Yes, there are food deserts in Hamilton, but perhaps it’s time to reframe this pejorative term. There have been calls worldwide to stop using the term ‘food desert’ for a number of reasons. For some, the term evokes negative connotations and implies that limited access to healthy food is a naturally occurring phenomenon, rather than the result of underlying structural inequities. For others, the use of the term desert is problematic in that arid landscapes, some covered in ice, most in sand – known as deserts – are home for many people around the world (in fact, each continent has desert regions) and are not inherently devoid of healthy food.
These urban landscapes which are largely barren of affordable and healthy food options do exist in Hamilton, although we are fortunate to have a class of creative culinary entrepreneurs seeking to create oases for food throughout the city. Out of necessity, I and countless others borrow from the tradition of nomadic communities who often travel from place to place (including deserts) to obtain good food. Wandering, whether by foot, public transit or car, is an incredible way to get to know Hamilton and uncover some hidden food oases in Steel Town. I recently happened upon three.
This past summer, while wandering around the Arkells’ Rally held at Tim Hortons Field, I came across Amanda Wright, founder of confectionary company Sweet and Simple (on Instagram @sweetandsimpleco). She was selling handmade treats, including her pastel-coloured soft mints – a throwback to candy dishes found at the homes of elder family friends and relatives throughout my childhood. Amanda stirs up her sweets in The Kitchen Collective on King at Sherman in the Gibson neighbourhood. The Kitchen Collective is a non-profit, affordable commercial kitchen and culinary incubator for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to collaborate with and learn from other food business owners. An incredible list of enterprising Hamilton-owned businesses are based out of this space representing catering companies, small-batch ice-cream makers, coffee roasters, pierogi purveyors, and more.
Farther afield – airfield, to be more precise – is The Pigeon. Nesting near the corner of Airport Road and Upper James, when your wandering involves flying into Hamilton Airport, The Pigeon offers a perfect post-flight meal. Get your fix at this unassuming takeaway spot in Mt. Hope that features a honed-in rotating menu. Mouth-watering specials can be found on Instagram @thepigeon.hamont. Specials aside, you CANNOT go wrong with the original fried chicken sandwich. With all menu items coming in under $12, it certainly is an accessible choice for many.
The Barton General at James and Barton is certainly not difficult to find – but a welcome addition that offshoots the James North corridor. Opened by the team behind Nique Restaurant, The Barton is a butcher shop, fish monger & bread retailer specializing in high-end local/organic meats with a focus on sustainability. They offer a concise rotating menu that showcases the protein they sell in the shop and their treatment of the meat and fish allow the ingredients to shine. The five chicken wings for $5 is a hard to beat bargain, enough to whet your appetite and encourage a purchase of some raw ingredients to prepare at home.
The results of my wandering were indeed delicious, but the requirement for Hamiltonians to wander is an issue of equity and social exclusion. Our postal codes shouldn’t dictate how easily we can acquire good food. The term food desert is fraught with issues, but the reason the term was coined remains important. This remains a challenge in Hamilton, but I am glad to see there are dedicated and creative entrepreneurs helping to create more mouth-watering choices in all deserts in this city. With any luck, our wandering will lead us to these new food oases.