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In The Hill Dist. No Food Access Means More Health Problems

The Hill District has been without a supermarket for more than 30 years, and according to a new study, that dearth of easily available food for local residents has led to negative health impacts.

The study, Pittsburgh Hill/Homewood Research on Eating, Shopping and Health (PHRESH), sheds light on how an individual's food choices and general health are affected by the amenities of the neighborhood where they live. The study also focuses on how people adapt to living in “food deserts”: neighborhoods without access to full service markets or fresh produce.

During the town-hall style meeting, Hill House President Cheryl Hall-Russell said this lack of access is hurting more than the health of Hill District residents: it’s also affecting the youth of the community.

“When [researchers] come back and talk about how people are shopping from a grocery store, many were finding that our young people don’t even understand that there are whole things of groceries out there—fresh fruits and vegetables, they don’t even know what they are,” she said.

Another issue is how long it takes to get from the Hill to a supermarket. According to principal researcher Tamara Dubowitz, it takes the average Hill District resident two hours to travel to and from a full service supermarket and complete their shopping.  In turn, this lowers the frequency that Hill residents go to a supermarket.  A third of those surveyed said they could only get to a supermarket once a month.

The study looked at the lack of access to healthy food choices and residential health: 76 percent of shoppers in the Hill District are overweight or obese, and roughly 50 percent have been diagnosed with hypertension.

While only one phase of the study has been completed, Dubowitz said the overall project will be far-reaching.

“The big goal of this is to understand how and what we can do to our neighborhoods to impact residents health,” she said. “So what we want to be able to do is document how the changes affect people’s health.”

The study was undertaken by Rand Corporation researchers and is funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The money allowed for the hiring of data collectors from each neighborhood as well as a $40 payment to each PHRESH participant.

The study’s release was supposed to coincide with the opening of a Shop 'n Save grocery store on Centre Avenue in the Hill. When the study was funded in 2010, the store was to have been built already. However funding problems delayed construction and the Shop n’ Save is expected to be open by next fall.

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