Grocery Stories: Fresh Food Access for Pennsylvania Neighborhoods

  • Jim McCue bags produce at the Food Club in Hazelwood in Pittsburgh. Photo: A. Murray

Advocates of sustainability argue that making sure neighborhoods have walkable, accessible grocery stores prevents urban dwellers from leaving for the suburbs.  There’s a term to describe communities without grocery stores or markets offering fresh foods: food deserts.

Food Access Study In Pittsburgh

One of the most comprehensive studies of food deserts in the country is taking place in two Pittsburgh neighborhoods, the Hill District and Homewood. The RAND Corporation study is funded by a $2.7 million National Institutes of Health grant that went to hire data collectors from each neighborhood and pay participants. More than 1400 people are being surveyed about what they eat, where they food shop and their health.

The study has determined that, on average, residents travel at least four miles to get fresh foods. Tamara Dubowitz, RAND’s lead researcher in this project, says their data indicate that the majority of respondents take buses, hire private taxies known as jitneys or accept rides from others to reach grocery stores or markets. Forty percent travel in their own cars. It takes residents an average of two hours to shop.

A third of the people surveyed said because of the time involved in shopping and limited access to transportation, they only shop once a month.

The study’s baseline findings show that 76 percent of people surveyed in the Hill District are overweight or obese, and roughly 50 percent have been diagnosed with hypertension

A Call To Expand the Definition of Food Deserts

The US Department of Agriculture defines food deserts in urban areas as low income neighborhoods that are at least one mile away from a venue that sells fresh foods. Tamara Dubowitz believes that definition is too limited.

“The information that our study is uncovering indicates that transportation availability, employment, access to child care, age- among other factors- shape residents’ abilities to food shop in stores or markets that are miles away from their homes,” says Dubowitz.

The Hill District has not had a full service grocery story since the 1980’s. A store that was planned for the neighborhood has been delayed because of funding. Neighborhood organizers hope the store will open in 2013.

Other Pennsylvania Neighborhoods Seek Food Access Solutions

Other communities in southwest Pennsylvania have also gone without fresh food venues for years. Hazelwood, a thriving neighborhood during Pittsburgh’s steel making years, once had several grocers. The community lost its last full service grocery store in 2009.

There's been talk among supermarket chains about locating in Hazelwood but no action so far. Pastor Leslie Boone of the Hazelwood Presbyterian church says that's why the churches are stepping in.

“We don't want us to be waiting 20 years for a grocery store to be here because in the meantime, we're watching our community being depleted,” says Boone.

The Presbyterian Church has started a food buying club. The club's members place grocery orders every other week through the church and buy fresh food in bulk.

On this morning, people line up to pick up their grocery orders in the church basement. 

“I don't very often get the opportunity to cook fresh vegetables because I have to put gas in the car to go to get vegetables, says Gloria Ferguson, a senior citizen.

Leslie Boone believes the buying club is one way to plug the drain on the neighborhood. A drain that’s not uncommon in many low income communities. As these areas lose full service grocers and other basic businesses, the loss contributes to a cycle of so called urban flight.

“This turns struggling neighborhoods into islands of concentrated poverty that are segregated racially and socio-economically,” says Court Gould, executive director of a public policy group called Sustainable Pittsburgh.

When communities become more isolated, it becomes less likely that supermarkets will come back. Studies by The Food Trust, a nationally known nonprofit in Philadelphia, have found that financing is a big obstacle to grocers opening new stores, especially in poor neighborhoods.

The Pennsylvania Fresh Foods Financing Initiative

Some grocers who are willing to locate in underserved areas have found help through the Pennsylvania Fresh Foods Financing Initiative. The initiative is managed by The Reinvestment Fund, a community development group in Philadelphia that works with public and private investors.

Since 2004, The Fund has financed close to 90 grocery stores in low income communities such as Vandergrift, northeast of Pittsburgh.

“We have 18 employees. Five full time and 13 part time. All of that money goes back into Vandergrift," says Randy Sprankle, the owner of Vandergrift’s newly funded grocery store.

The Pennsylvania Fresh Foods Financing Initiative has worked so well that the state of California has adopted it as a model.