Mapping Cork’s foodscape: The patterns that influence our food choices

Mapping Cork’s foodscape: The patterns that influence our food choices

An interactive chart tracks the distribution of food businesses, revealing shocking insights into patterns influencing our choices, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Are there factors other than willpower in what we choose to eat?

Janas Harrington, of UCC’s School of Public Health, thinks so. The chair of Cork Food Policy Council since last year, Ms Harrington says it’s time to stop playing the “blame game” and start looking at all the other things that influence our diet.

“We choose our food very unconsciously most of the time and we’re being nudged towards certain types of foods by retailers and advertisers, without even realising it,” she says.

There’s the advertising we see, and then there are the kinds of retail outlets and food businesses we can access most easily, and things like pricing policies. All these things, and more, impact on what we eat.

Cork Food Policy Council is launching its interactive food map of Cork this month. The map analyses food businesses within the city according to the type of food outlet, with links to demographic factors, such as socio-economic deprivation, car ownership, and distribution of schools. The insights are both valuable and shocking.

A third of all primary schools and half of all secondary schools in Cork are within 400m of at least one fast-food chain. Shops that fall under the category of “bakeries, confectioneries, doughnuts, and ice cream” have access to the highest population density of all food retail outlet categories in the city, making the temptation of sugary treats a constant.

Some 75% of all areas in Cork City don’t have a supermarket within 10 minutes’ walk, so people are more likely to need a car to get fresh produce, while there are twice as many convenience stores (with their high prices and emphasis on processed foods) as any other retail outlet. For Ms Harrington, whose work in UCC focuses on the impact of diet and food policy on health, these insights are viewed in conjunction with Ireland’s alarming rates of obesity, which continue to soar.

Irish adults will have had the fastest increase in obesity rates in the EU between 2014 and 2025: from 25.55% to 37.65%, according to The Lancet medical journal. In the meantime, one in four Irish children are now overweight or obese, according to the HSE.

“Access to fast food and convenience foods impacts our health and can subconsciously trigger an urge to consume them by making them more accessible, visible, and normal,” Ms Harrington says.

She would support a “no fry zone” for Cork, banning new fast food outlets from setting up alongside schools. “People talk about the ‘nanny state’ and over-regulation, but when you look at the prevalence of obesity in the country, especially amongst children, we do need to start taking action at a policy level.”

Mapping Cork’s foodscape: The patterns that influence our food choices

As well as revealing that junk foods are too accessible, CorkFood Map also provides a commentary on food poverty and social inequality. Navigating the map, you’ll see north that, north of the Lee, there are areas where lack of supermarket access, high rates of deprivation, and low rates of car ownership intersect.

In Churchfield and Gurranabraher, up to 56% of households don’t have a car, the level of deprivation is at the highest, and there are no supermarkets within walking distance.

Yet, there are between one and five fast food outlets. If you’re a young mum on a limited budget, with a double buggy and high curbs to negotiate, or a pensioner with mobility issues and relying on irregular buses, the local convenience store might be all you can manage.

“With food poverty, the access, availability, and affordability of food all impact on what we choose to buy,” Ms Harrington says. “Convenience-style stores have fewer lines of fresh fruit and veg and lean-cut meat, and more processed foods. The foods also tend to be more expensive in those shops, as opposed to supermarkets, so it becomes a vicious circle of spending.”

And while poor might have equalled skinny in Dickensian times, the inverse is now true.

The Growing Up In Ireland survey shows a link between low-income households and childhood obesity, and this also, mysteriously, impacts girls more severely. Boys and girls from households with ‘professional’ parents are overweight or obese at a rate of 18-19%, while for children in ‘semi and unskilled’ households, 29% of boys and 38% of girls were overweight or obese. In Ireland, it’s an under-explored area of research.

Virginia O’Gara, from Cork Urban Soil Project (CUSP), believes that access to good food should be “a right and not a privilege”.

Ms O’Gara says that part of the answer lies not in increased reliance on supermarket giants, but in getting back to basics and growing moreof what we eat; the return of urban gardening.

She wants CUSP to fuel it.

“In the northside, people remember their grannies and grandads growing food in their back garden,” Ms O’Gara says.

Right now, people are struggling to meet their basic needs in all sorts of areas: With time, with money, with family. Reconnecting with the earth is a very important part of creating a society that’s actually sustainable.

Already a mainstay of the Cork food scene with her vegan food business My Goodness, Ms O’Gara’s most recent project uses food waste as a resource in a circular economy.

The CUSP pilot scheme, developed with fellow founders, Seán Binder and Molly Garvey, will collect food waste and compostable packaging from Mahon Point farmers’ market stalls and turn it into a viable, fertile, growing substrate within 48 hours, by using an aerobic biodigester: a compost bin on steroids, if you will.

“If that works, the next step would be to take it to the English Market and to start taking it to a more municipal level,” Ms O’Gara says.

Mapping Cork’s foodscape: The patterns that influence our food choices

“Right now, our current food system doesn’t make any sense at all,” she says.

“We need to figure out a way to make the right decisions: it’s healthy, it’s fun, it’s delicious, and it just makes so much more sense than expecting other people to grow the food for us.”

Cork Food Map launches on January 22, at 7pm in Cork University Business School, with an evening of talks on Food Poverty in Cork, Sustaining a Food Business in Cork City, and the Cork Urban Soil Project. Free tickets via

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