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Pandemic Drove Large Food Insecurity Increases In Hill District, Homewood

Illustration by Haley Okuley / RAND Corporation
This RAND study is following residents of the Hill District and Homewood

Food insecurity increased greatly – by nearly 80% – for residents in two predominantly Black Pittsburgh neighborhoods during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, far above that of the general population during the same time, according to new research released Thursday. 

The study, from RAND Corporation researchers in Pittsburgh, is part of a long-running examination that started in 2011 of food deserts in both the Hill District and Homewood, known as the “PHRESH” study.

The new research has been published in the American Journal of Public Health, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Food insecurity refers to not having reliable access to enough nutritious food.

The number of residents reporting food insecurity increased from 20.7% in 2018 to 36.9% in 2020, according to the study. Previously, food insecurity had been declining over time in the two neighborhoods since 2011. The survey followed a group of more than 600 residents who were interviewed in March, April, and May 2020.

“In a short period of time, the coronavirus pandemic has magnified preexisting racial and ethnic disparities in food security,” Tamara Dubowitz, the study’s lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND, said in a statement. “While food insecurity is linked to a wide variety of health problems, these disparities reflect larger systemic issues including structural racism.”

Possible reasons for such high rates include job losses or reduced hours, social isolation, psychological distress, or transportation problems, Dubowitz said.

While food insecurity was a problem, respondents said they did not significantly change their use of food banks or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, during this time.

“This finding suggests that existing safety nets may need more support in order to reach those with emerging needs,” Dubowitz said. “Lack of reported use could be due to difficulties with SNAP enrollment, problems accessing food banks in the early days of the pandemic or feelings of stigma related to participating in such programs.”

Researchers are continuing to study food, nutrition and health issues in the neighborhoods, Dubowitz said.

Support for the study was provided by the National Cancer Institute and RAND.

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