Research Determines That Allegheny County Leads State in 'Food Deserts'

Article excerpt

There hasn't been a full-service grocery story in Hazelwood since 2009.

So when Connie Murphy, 53, and Lettie Jordan, 59, heard there was fresh produce for sale at Hazelwood Presbyterian Church on Second Avenue, they set out on foot on a recent Saturday and waited patiently for a chance to buy some.

"It will really help me out, because I didn't know that they had meat and stuff there," said Murphy, who doesn't have a car and is unemployed because of a disability caused by a stroke.

Lots of people need that kind of help getting healthy food.

Tens of thousands of people in the Pittsburgh region -- including Hazelwood -- live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "food deserts": low-income communities that lack easy access to "affordable and nutritious foods" that typically are available in full-service supermarkets.

Some experts say not having close proximity to a store that stocks fresh produce, meats and dairy products means low-income residents turn to more readily available fast food and unhealthy offerings at convenience stores.

Studies have linked the absence of grocery stores with obesity, diabetes and other ailments affected by diet.

Last month, the USDA's Economic Research Service released its online food desert locator, which allows people to enter addresses to determine whether they live within food deserts.

According to the tool, Allegheny County has more people with low food access -- 33,912 -- than any other county in Pennsylvania, even though it is the second most-populated in the state, following Philadelphia County.

Parts or all of Hazelwood, North Versailles, North Braddock and McKeesport are a few of the areas in Allegheny County that the USDA considers to be food deserts.

Specifically, the USDA defines food deserts as areas where:

At least 20 percent of residents are at or below federal poverty level, or where median family income is at or below 80 percent of the surrounding area's median family income.

500 people, or 33 percent of the population, live more than a mile from a grocery store in an urban or suburban area, or more than 10 miles in a rural area.

The online locator was designed to help policymakers and researchers identify areas where public-private intervention can help make healthy, affordable food more available, Economic Research Service economist Shelly Ver Ploeg said.

Stores lost

From 1998 to 2008, the number of grocery stores in Allegheny County declined nearly 16 percent, from 243 to 205, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

While urban and rural areas lost smaller stores, suburban areas with large swaths of available land and middle- and upper-class consumers gained retailers, including large supermarkets with expansive produce and meat departments.

Grocers wanting to move into Pittsburgh neighborhoods might face additional hurdles, said Rob Stephany, executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority.

"It's hard to find a site to accommodate a grocer. The competition with Giant Eagle is very real. The margins are really thin," he said.

Some retailers aren't deterred by rural or urban low-income areas.

Discount grocer Bottom Dollar Food plans to open stores in Aliquippa and Ambridge, two Beaver County municipalities with sections that are considered food deserts by the USDA. The average Bottom Dollar is about 19,000 square feet, said spokeswoman Tenisha Waldo, a spokeswoman for the Salisbury, N.C.-based chain.

Aliquippa has a poverty rate of 20.8 percent, while Ambridge's was 23.1 percent, according to 2005-09 census estimates. In comparison, the Pennsylvania and U.S. rates were 12. …