Rand Corp. researchers to study effects of Hill District grocery store

A thousand households in the Hill District will be the subject of a study that researchers say would be the first of its kind in the country to track a grocery store's impact on food-buying habits in a particular neighborhood over time.

Researchers from the Rand Corp., with a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and help from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, will begin tracking food-buying and eating histories this year in anticipation of the proposed 2011 opening of a Shop 'n Save on Centre Avenue near Dinwiddie Street.

Researchers met Monday with neighborhood representatives to discuss the five-year study, which includes hiring 15 data collectors from or familiar with the Hill. One in every five households will be chosen at random in a door-to-door campaign, said lead researcher Tamara Dubowitz.

All information will be measured against household distance from the store.

Ms. Dubowitz said the Hill has become a "food desert" -- mainly because it hasn't had a grocery for more than 30 years and because many residents depend on public transportation to get to the nearest one.

It is generally known that people who live near groceries that sell healthy food have better health outcomes than people who do not, she said.

"But we have not been able to track 1,000 households over time before and after [the coming of a nearby grocery] to establish a causal relationship," she said.

Victor Roque, president and CEO of Hill House Association, said Monday that Hill House "is excited to partner with Rand on this significant study and, more importantly, to learn of its findings. The study will serve as a national model for understanding the health benefits of residents of urban communities having access to a full-service grocer."

The families that participate will be paid $40 and undergo a one-hour interview to begin the process.

"One thing we're trying to get is a deeper understanding of cultural issues that may be involved in food purchasing" and whether choices are based on lack of knowledge of how to prepare healthy food, lack of tools and/or lack of time, said Ms. Dubowitz.

"We are hoping to see that this [store] makes a difference," she said, "but we anticipate it may not make a difference to some people."

A British study assessed a neighborhood before and after a grocery store moved in and "found it didn't make that big a difference" in food choice, she said.

Before and after the new Hill District store opens, the research team will conduct a physical audit of the neighborhood, "going up and down every street of the Hill and every outlet that sells any type of food," noting the shelf space given to healthy items.

The household questionnaire will include information about daily life activities; the level of social support for healthy eating; transportation use; social-cultural factors such as perceived attitudes toward eating a healthy diet; knowledge of fat and fiber content; perceived barriers to eating healthily; and the cost and perceived cost, she said.

"We're hoping people will recognize the importance of this study for the Hill District and for other neighborhoods around the country. This is a big deal for Pittsburgh. It will put us on the [food study] map."

She said the timing is right, too, as the local food movement is gaining acceptance in minority communities.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at http://blogs.sites.post-gazette.com .


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