In Former Food Desert, Access Doesn't Always Inspire Better Nutrition

Nov 3, 2015

It’s been nearly two years since a Shop ‘n Save grocery store opened on Centre Avenue in the Hill District. For decades, the neighborhood was considered a food desert, which the federal government defines as an area where residents lack access to healthy, nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

“Before this store came, everybody in the Hill District went to the South Side,” said Margaret Peoples, who works in the store’s deli. “Before then, they went to the Giant Eagle in Oakland.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an estimated 23.5 million people live in food deserts; more than half of them are low-income. The American Medical Association reports that black people are four times more likely to live in a food desert than white Americans.

“Food deserts are believed to contribute to the problem of obesity in the United States,” said Tamara Dubowitz, a senior policy researcher with the RAND Corporation and lead author of a study that looked at the effects of the new grocery store on nearby residents shopping and eating habits.

“The theory is people in these areas tend to buy less healthy and nutritious foods because their neighborhoods have higher concentrations of less healthy options,” such as convenience stores and fast food restaurants, she said.

Dubowitz said the USDA is working to persuade full service grocery stores to locate in food deserts as a way to combat obesity. Since 2011, the federal government has invested more than $500 million through the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The state of Pennsylvania has a similar program, and the Centre Avenue Shop 'n Save benefited from both.

Dubowitz and her team wanted to find out what would happen when a food desert finally got a full-service grocery store. They interviewed more than 800 residents of the Hill District and Homewood, another food desert that served as a control in the study. Interviews were conducted in 2011, before the Shop 'n Save opened, and again in 2014.

The study found that Hill District residents consumed fewer calories, sugar, solid fats and less alcohol after the grocery store opened. But Dubowitz said that finding is not as straightforward as it seems.

“Perhaps the most surprising finding of our study, and maybe the most confusing finding of our study, was that in fact there … were a number of positive changes, but they were not directly related to frequency of use of the grocery store,” she said.

Just over 99 percent of Hill District and Homewood respondents reported shopping at a full-service supermarket at least occasionally, according to the study. That could include the Shop 'n Save or other groceries.

And not all the changes were positive, Dubowitz said. Residents in both neighborhoods consumed fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains in 2014 than they had in 2011.
It turns out, adding a full-service grocery to a food desert is not a silver bullet, she said. At least not in the short amount of time between when the store opened—October 2013—and when follow-up interviews were conducted between May and December of 2014.

“We know that food choice is something that is extremely complicated. It’s also ingrained in our personal day to day activities (and) in our generations,” Dubowitz said. “Diet is not something that one would ever expect to change overnight, and one shouldn’t necessarily expect that just because there’s access to healthy foods that we would find all of these dietary changes.”

While having access to healthy food may not directly impact people’s food choices, Dubowitz said the fact that participants did consume fewer empty calories after the store opened shows that there is some, perhaps indirect, relationship between having a store nearby and dietary intake.

But for Hill District residents like retiree Dana Dunn, the presence of the Shop ‘n Save has improved quality of life. She no longer has to get a ride to Lawrenceville or the South Side in order to buy groceries; she can just walk to the Shop ‘n Save.

“This is right here,” she said. “I live on Sugar Top; I’m two minutes away. Run to Shop ‘n Save, send the kids, go to shop Shop ‘n Save. That’s what I do, so it’s very convenient.”

Store manager Todd Ross said the majority of employees live in the surrounding neighborhood, which means there has been a real economic impact beyond convenient access to food.

Another finding of the study: Hill District residents just like their neighborhood more now that there’s a grocery store. The number of residents who reported they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their neighborhood as a place to live went from about 66 percent in 2011 to about 80 percent in 2014.