Experts keeping an eye on Beechview grocery in survey of Northeast food security

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Two focus groups with about 10 people each got together in Beechview last week to answer questions on how they shop for groceries and whether their community has access to the food they need. One session was even run in Spanish, so researchers could get as complete a picture as possible of how the food system delivers for the struggling Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Researchers at Penn State University want to know.

As do researchers from Columbia University, Cornell University, Delaware State University, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Tufts University, University of Vermont and West Virginia State University, not to mention officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Beechview and its sole grocery, Las Palmas IGA, are part of an ambitious five-year project meant to look at food security in the Northeast — a project that’s examining everything from how much land is devoted to farming in the 12 states that stretch from Maine to West Virginia to how the supply chain processes and distributes food in the region.

“The overall project goal is to determine whether greater reliance on regionally produced food could improve food access and affordability in disadvantaged communities, while also benefiting farmers, food supply chain firms and others in the food system,” according to the study website.

The project was approved for $5 million in USDA funding in 2011. Stephan Goetz, a professor of agricultural and regional economics at Penn State and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development there, serves as the project director, although there are more than three dozen people involved, including an independent contractor and organizations like the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

That mass of expertise has been organized into six teams that range from one looking at production issues and talking with farmers to another focused on distribution of food. The consumption team ran the focus groups in Beechview. Each team meets two or three times monthly, while the whole group talks once a month. Once a year, they all gather face to face, with this year’s gathering set for September in Baltimore.

Three years in, information is starting to come in from the researchers.

Earlier this year, the production team report on the region’s self-reliance issue found the Northeast produces most of the milk it consumes and about 70 percent of its eggs. Only 26 percent of the vegetables and 18 percent of the fruit consumed in this part of the U.S. are grown here. A full 40 percent of the cropland acreage is used for growing corn, mostly for animal feed.

Things like rising fuel prices or significant climate change could eventually disrupt the food supply to regions that rely on other parts of the country, said Tufts associate professor Tim Griffin in a February release discussing the research.

That would affect everyone in the 12 states, not just neighborhoods like Beechview struggling to hang onto their last grocery store. The original pitch for the grant noted more than 7 million people in the Northeast are already “food insecure.”

The different teams are all starting with the same “market basket” — eight foods that could be fairly compared between many different sites and that could satisfy basic nutritional requirements. The basket is filled with apples, bread, cabbage, canned peaches, frozen broccoli, ground beef, milk and potatoes.

The consumption team is tracking the availability of those foods in 16 stores in low-income areas in places like Baltimore; Charleston, W.Va.; Madison County, N.Y.; Essex County, Vt.; and, of course, Pittsburgh.

Store inventories were taken at all of the participating locations and will be taken again to track changes. “The brand doesn’t matter so much as the item itself,” said Heather Mikulas, program manager for community-based agriculture for Penn State Cooperative Extension-Allegheny County and chair of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. She’s a member of the consumption team.

Those doing the inventories looked at the packages to see where the food was processed, where the distribution center was located, and where the food was grown, Ms. Mikulas said. “We get all the information we can from the label,” she said, noting that some labels don’t divulge a lot about the origins of the package contents.

But if, say, the white bread at IGA is coming from Chicago, that highlights an item that isn't being sourced from within the 12-state Northeast.

Students in a food products marketing course at Penn State, which was restructured in 2012 to add content related to the food security study, discovered this spring how sprawling the U.S. food supply chain is when they tried to develop a plan for a roadside hamburger stand that specialized in regionally sourced food.

According to a posting earlier this month on the study’s website, the students found meat pretty easy to source within the 12-state region but had a hard time identifying a supply of things like hamburger buns.

The goal of the project is not to put anyone out of business, Ms. Mikulas said, although it might identify gaps or opportunities that merchants and food distributors could decide to try filling. “It’s knowledge gathering,” she said, adding, “It’s just understanding how it works.”

A complete map of where food is coming from and flowing to isn’t available now, she said. “The knowledge would be useful for any number of scenarios that may come up in the future in terms of the security of our food system.”

That needs to include an examination of how consumers shop. Ms. Mikulas said customers at the Beechview IGA — and at the other participating stores — who are willing to stop and talk for a few minutes have been asked about how much they spent, how often they shop and how they go to the store.

The IGA replaced a Foodland that had closed at the Broadway Avenue site in 2010. Then it changed operators last year, with the new owners of the business shifting the merchandise to include more Latin American flavors. The building is owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

On one shelf at the store last week, cans of Hunt’s diced tomatoes sat next to cans of IGA diced tomatoes and containers of Gloria Teloloapan red mole sauce, while cheerful children played hide-and-seek in the aisles and a worker restocked produce.

The Foodland loss was especially hard on the community because it took so long to replace the store, said Phyllis Didiano, president of Community Leaders United for Beechview. “We lost our grocery store for 18 months,” she recalled.

Elected officials and government agencies supported efforts to get a replacement, yet it was a long time for residents to wait. She thinks people found ways to get to other stores — getting rides from friends, taking public transit or even walking.

Beechview has a community garden and an effort underway to raise awareness of that, Ms. Didiano said. Also, “We have nice restaurants that have opened.”

But the grocery closure was long enough to allow shopping patterns to change. That may be presenting a challenge to re-establishing a store in the community. “I hope they’re doing well,” Ms. Didiano said.

The food security researchers may have gathered more information on how residents are responding during last week’s focus groups. Ms. Didiano helped recruit the participants, as she had in the past.

Past focus group members have asked her later if the study will change anything in Beechview. She’s hopeful that — even if it seems to be a high-level, academic conservation — the effort could benefit the community.

Ms. Mikulas said the food security research has already fed into other projects that help cities where the teams are working. For example, an intern with the project last year also conducted several in-depth assessments of the city of Pittsburgh’s farmers markets and is putting together a report for the city.

Meanwhile, Ms. Mikulas expects more information to start flowing. Research is even now going through the peer review process, she said, and this spring the project began sharing its progress through a set of newsletters.

Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018.

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