Oasis In A Food Desert Doesn't Guarantee A Better Diet

Nov 5, 2015


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

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 23.5 million people live in food deserts. 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 new Shop 'n Save in Pittsburg benefited from both.

Tamara Dubowitz, a senior policy researcher with the RAND Corporation, led a study of how the arrival of the grocery store affected nearby residents' shopping and eating habits. It turns out, adding a full-service grocery to a food desert is not a silver bullet. 

This story was originally published by WESA.

Dubowitz and her team interviewed more than 800 residents of the Hill District and Homewood, another food desert in Pittsburg 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 there. But residents in both the Hill District and Homewood consumed fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains in 2014 than they had in 2011.

“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.”

Still, Dubowitz said the fact that participants in the RAND study did consume fewer empty calories after the store opened in Pittsburg's Hill District shows that there is some, perhaps indirect, relationship between having a store nearby and diet.

Another finding of the study: Hill District residents 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.

Resident Dana Dunn, a retiree, says the presence of Shop ‘n Save has improved her quality of life. She no longer has to get a ride to another neighborhood to buy groceries. She can just walk.

"I’m two minutes away. Run to Shop ‘n Save, send the kids, go to Shop ‘n Save," Dunn said. "It’s very convenient.”

Store manager Todd Ross said the majority of employees live in the surrounding neighborhood, which means there has been an economic impact too.