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Researchers to study impact of new grocery on Pittsburgh's Hill District residents

| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, 11:01 p.m.

La'Vette Wagner doesn't mind driving to pick up her mother, Janet, after she shops for Thanksgiving dinner at a grocery store, but it likely won't be necessary this time next year once a new Shop 'n Save ends the Hill District's dubious status as a food desert.

“My mom is the type of person who would catch the bus or a jitney depending on how many groceries she has, and she's in her 70s,” Wagner said. “Now she'll be able to shop in the Hill.”

Wagner, who was born in the Hill and lives in Penn Hills, knows the difficulties residents in the economically depressed neighborhood encounter when they want to shop for healthy foods.

She is the field coordinator of Pittsburgh Hill/Homewood Research on Eating, Shopping & Health, a five-year, $2.7 million study conducted by Rand Corp. of grocery shopping, eating habits and health known by its acronym, PHRESH.

Neither the Hill nor Homewood has a full-service grocery store. Construction of the $11.5 million Shop 'n Save at Centre Avenue and Heldman Street is to begin this month after a funding shortfall stalled progress for more than a year.

In the first major U.S. study of the topic, researchers hope to measure how a new grocery store affects residents' shopping habits, eating choices and satisfaction with their neighborhood.

Eighteen data collectors spent six months late last year surveying one resident each from about one in five randomly selected households in the Hill and one in seven in Homewood. Tamara Dubowitz, the senior policy researcher at Rand conducting the study, said data collectors asked about where and how often residents shopped for food, how they traveled there, how long it took, crime and safety and whether they worried about running out of food before they could buy more.

Dubowitz said many in the Hill travel to the Giant Eagle in the South Side — the closest option — or the one in Shadyside, but some go to wholesale clubs in the suburbs. The study documents 12 convenience stores that sell food in the Hill and 11 in Homewood and seasonal farmers' markets.

“As far as fresh unpackaged, unprocessed foods, that's extremely limited,” she said.

Data collectors will follow up with the same households in the Hill after the grocery store opens.

A store isn't planned for Homewood, so the second round of surveys would help track other changes.

Two U.K.-based studies of food deserts found that grocery stores improved residents' opinion of their neighborhoods, but didn't significantly change their diets.

Some of the Rand survey's initial findings will be discussed for the first time at two public meetings set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hill House Association on Centre Avenue and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA.

The study is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or jboren@tribweb.com.

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