A small group of people huddled in the parking lot of a closed No Frills wait for a shuttle bus to go grocery shopping.
Among them is Chris Wood, 60, who has bronchitis. He should be in bed, but is standing in the cold because Rocca’s No Frills at Coxwell Ave. and Gerrard St. E. closed for repairs in May.
Wood lives nearby, but is waiting for a free company bus to take him to another No Frills. He has little choice. Local green grocers are too expensive. He doesn’t own a car. And he can’t afford to regularly ride the TTC.
“It’s a hassle,” says Wood, who gets by on about $900 a month from Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). “Being able to shop at a grocery store with lower costs, like No Frills, is quite important for me.”
Two other No Frills stores in the GTA have also recently closed, shedding light on the need for access to affordable and healthy food.
Vi’s No Frills in Parkdale closed in early December for immediate roof repairs — the landlord is hopeful it will reopen in the spring. And Linda’s No Frills in Port Credit, Mississauga, permanently closed in late December when a leasing agreement couldn’t be reached. That site will be redeveloped to include a condo, commercial and office space.
Loblaw, the parent company of No Frills, is running free shuttle buses at all three locations to other No Frills stores, a move that is commended by residents, but not without complaints.
Residents fear these discount supermarkets won’t reopen and they’ll be left in food deserts. It’s a pressing issue for those on low or fixed incomes and appears to be driving up food bank usage. It also raises questions about what obligations, if any, municipal governments and private companies have in ensuring access to nutritious food. After all, food insecurity — not being able to access or afford food — impacts one in eight households, according to the city’s public health unit.
“We’re a little bit worried that the (Vi’s) No Frills will never open and there will be a condominium development on that property,” says Ric Amis, a board member of the Parkdale Residents Association.
But Kevin Groh, spokesman for Loblaw Companies Limited, says “We are as disappointed as our customers in the need to close these three stores.”
“We will absolutely reopen both Rocca’s No Frills and Vi’s No Frills, and would open them today if we could,” says the vice president of corporate affairs and communication. “In both cases, the closures were out of our hands and related to the buildings’ need for significant repairs. Vi’s will reopen soon and Rocca’s is a bigger job that needs time, patience and City permits.
“We could not continue to operate our Port Credit location, as our business model relies on reasonable real estate costs. We take huge pride in serving communities that need No Frills prices, value and freshness. Some locations are simply too expensive. That’s not our fault, nor the fault of our cities or landlords. It’s just a reality.”
‘People end up paying for it with their health’
It’s early afternoon and 10 people wait on a King St. W. corner in Parkdale for the Vi’s No Frills daily shuttle to take them 1.5 kilometres to a No Frills on Lansdowne Ave.
Soaring behind them are rental buildings that line Jameson Ave. South Parkdale has the largest renters’ population in Toronto at 90 per cent. For many, Vi’s is a mainstay.
After 15 minutes, a white 21-seater bus rolls up. Passengers, with their shopping buggies in tow, clamber aboard.
A neighbour helps Abby Thomas fold her walker and lug it up the three steps. Thomas broke her hip in 2015 and five surgeries later can’t carry much. She shops frequently, in small amounts. Today’s list consists of Coke, sliced bread and wipes.
“The shuttle is not made for a walker,” says Thomas. But, she’s thankful for the ride. “It’s an excellent response. I’m very glad they implemented it.”
That kind of feedback is common.
“While the situation is not ideal, our customers have expressed appreciation for the shuttle service, and we appreciate their patience while we wait for Vi’s No Frills and Rocca’s No Frills to reopen,” says Groh, adding the shuttle service in Port Credit will continue as long as it’s viable.
Barb Livesay, 57, doesn’t like waiting for a shuttle. She prefers to walk a kilometre to a Metro grocery store, even though her weekly food bill has doubled to $45.
“I’m buying less, spending more,” says the Parkdale resident on ODSP. “Financially, it hurts.”
Steven Swain, registrar of the Parkdale Community Food Bank, says there are a lot of working poor in the area. By the time they get home, the shuttle is either no longer running or they’re too tired to trek to a low-cost grocer, so some go to the corner convenience store or local McDonald’s.
“People who are hungry make rash decisions,” Swain says.
Food bank use up
Jacob Rothchild waits in line for the Parkdale Community Food Bank to open.
“I used to use No Frills all the time,” says Rothchild, adding since it closed he’s become a frequent visitor to the food bank. “Now I come every week. Before, I came once a month.”
The Parkdale Community Food Bank has seen a jump in daily clients, from about 70 to 90, attributed, in part, to the closure of Vi’s.
Across town, visits to food banks also went up after Rocca’s No Frills closed in May 2016. For instance, during June, July and August 2016 compared with the same three months in 2015, visits increased by 39 per cent at Glen Rhodes Food Bank and 13 per cent at Calvary Baptist Church. And at Danforth Mosaic, there was a 30 per cent rise during the month of June 2016, before it closed.
Rising food prices and losing a low-cost grocer are contributing factors, says Richard Matern, director of research and communications at Daily Bread Food Bank, who analyzes data from member agencies and spots neighbourhood trends.
“When (people) have limited incomes and most of their money is going to rent there’s various ways of coping, and shopping at the discount store was one way they were coping with rising food prices.”
In Toronto, the minimum cost of buying healthy food for a family of four is $858 per month — a 20 per cent jump since 2009, according to the Toronto Public Health report, ‘Cost of the Nutritious Food Basket.’ As food prices continue to rise, low-income households will be hardest hit.
‘It’s something the city should look at as a priority’
Mississauga Councillor Jim Tovey and Toronto Councillors Gord Perks and Mary-Margaret McMahon — each representing a ward with a closed No Frills — say residents are upset, but there’s nothing the City can do to compel a business to open, or remain open.
Rachel Gray of the Toronto Food Policy Council suggests the city provide incentives for retailers to serve low-income communities and employ local residents. And Darcy Higgins of Building Roots says a tax credit for small grocers could be the answer.
“It’s something the city should look at as a priority when a neighbourhood is changing or getting more costly,” says Higgins, whose business focuses on helping communities access fresh and healthy food.
For now, folks like Michael Self, 64, of Port Credit, must make do. Having a No Frills less than a block from home was convenient. Now he rides his scooter 1.2 kilometres to a Dollarama for canned goods and to Loblaws for milk, bread, margarine and whatever’s on sale. Plus, it was a lot easier on his wallet.
“I’m like a sailor on shore leave.”