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90.5 WESA reporters look at food issues in the region, including access, school lunch programs, food history, culture and more. Check our collection of stories below.

What Neighborhood Factors, Besides Having A Grocery Store, Could Improve Health In The Hill?

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Rand researcher Tamara Dubowitz says many factors go into how a person eats.

New research from the Rand Corporation shows that who you are – including your race, education and income – is a big predictor of how healthy you eat. But where you live matters, too.

Since 2011, Rand has compared the health of residents in Homewood, a food desert, with the Hill District, which went 30 years without a grocery store before finally getting one in 2013.

90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young spoke with Rand researcher Tamara Dubowitz about the impacts of building a grocery store in The Hill, and the questions the findings raise about how things like affordable housing, green spaces and sleep may impact diet.

VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG: What did Rand researcher discover was the impact of opening a grocery store in the Hill District?

TAMARA DUBOWITZ: We actually saw greater improvements among Hill District residents when compared with Homewood residents in added sugar intake and caloric intake, and in what we call empty calories. So those are calories from sort of bad for you foods, in like packaged foods and cakes and cookies and that kind of thing. We did not see improvements in fruit and vegetable intake or in whole grain intake. The sort of wrench of the story was that the improvements among Hill District residents were not related to whether or not they used the store. So shopping at the new grocery store was not associated with dietary improvements. It didn't matter whether you shopped, at the supermarket or not.

ALVINO YOUNG: What is your research team going to do going forward to look for variables that might have been responsible for that improvement?

DUBOWITZ: Yes, so it actually brought up a lot of additional questions. What caused this if it wasn't the grocery store? Or what was going on or what is going on in the Hill District that might affect diet if it's not the new grocery store? So, going forward we're looking both backwards and forwards. So we're looking at all of the different investments that have happened in the Hill District including housing investments and commercial investments, and we're also following the same cohort over time to see what happens to diet over time.

Was this just a finding that occurred a little bit after the grocery store opened because there was increased awareness? We’re asking questions like this does community hopefulness, is that something, community well-being. Is that something that relates to diet? So we're really interested in digging into the mechanisms of what is it about investing in communities and investing correctly in communities that might ultimately translate into health.

ALVINO YOUNG: The aim of this research is to improve our public policies surrounding health and food consumption. What policies have you seen in the country implemented or piloted that have shown tangible results?

DUBOWITZ: One, I would point to the investing in eliminating food deserts. And actually although our research doesn't show that shopping at the supermarket necessarily makes the difference, it did show a lot of improvements in the health and well-being of residents. So another thing that we saw was that residents’ satisfaction with their neighborhood as a place to live improved pretty dramatically among residents in the Hill District. So I would still point to that policy as an effective one and one that we should continue to invest in.

Another policy that's more individual or targeted towards individuals is our tax policies. So there have been tax policies on sugar sweetened beverages that have raised quite a bit of controversy. However, we have seen as far as the effectiveness of improving diet of decreasing sugar sweetened beverage intake, they've been really effective.

Another policy or another type of policy is incentivizing the purchase of healthy foods. So there's something called the Double Bucks Program which is being piloted right now and targeting specific populations, so SNAP participants, a program which allows them to get double the produce for half of the price. We're seeing some positive results as far as being an effective policy.