Hazelwood became a food desert overnight when Dimperio's Market, the last full-service grocery standing in the neighborhood, closed in January 2009, after 80 years.
A fizzled plan for a co-op and a couple of seasonal farm stands later, Loaves and Fishes -- a 3-month-old food buying club -- has emerged as a year-round mode for bringing fresh food to the neighborhood.
A production of two churches and the Hazelwood Initiative, each of which put in $250 to complement a $2,000 no-interest loan from the Catholic Diocese, Loaves and Fishes has built a membership of 40 individuals, mostly by word of mouth, and a relationship with two Strip District purveyors.
"Mancini's bread is the 'loaves' part of it," said the Rev. Leslie Boone, pastor of Hazelwood Presbyterian Church. "Wholey's is the fishes."
Pastors and members from St. Stephen Catholic Church and the Hazelwood Presbyterian Church do the shopping, load members' bags and, in many cases, deliver the bags to the doors.
"We have a number of people who are elderly and disabled," said Rev. Boone.
One recent Saturday, in the basement of her church, she called out each member's grocery list while the Rev. Dan Walsh of St. Stephen and three volunteers pulled items from grocery bags or a cooler.
"Next bag, number 23, Evelyn," she said, "three pounds collard greens ..." and looked up as seminary student Nhien Nguyen weighed a bunch of collards. "Turkey parts," she said. She tapped her pencil. "I think hers is the smoked, Ethel's is the regular.
"And two pounds of pork chops."
Every other Saturday, Father Walsh and a team of shoppers head to the Strip District at 9 a.m. to fill orders.
"The first stop is Mancini's," he said. "Then at Wholey's, where if the order is big enough, they have it ready." If not, "Jim [McCue] pulls the produce and I take care of the meats, fish, frozen and dairy. We check out together" and return to Hazelwood with the groceries by 11 and start filling bags.
Members pay a one-time $20 club fee, which is refundable if they drop out. What they pay for groceries is somewhere between retail and wholesale, based on the size of the club to date, said Jim Richter, a member of the board and executive director of the Hazelwood Initiative.
"The more people we get to join," he said, "the closer to wholesale we will get."
The mission is to get healthy food to the neighborhood for the convenience of any resident, and it is also to serve the needy.
Participation is "a little bit of both, but more on the end of folks who are really in need," he said. "Maybe they don't have a car. This is a much cheaper way for them" than a jitney or even a bus. "You'd have to take the bus to Greenfield Avenue and get a transfer to go to the Giant Eagle in Greenfield. That costs extra."
Rev. Boone, who came up with the idea for the food club, said she was motivated by a single image -- "2-year-olds sucking on Hot Fries," she said. "They have all that orange stuff around their mouths and I'm thinking, 'Don't give your kids those preservatives and salt!' It really bothers me."
People in Hazelwood have a few makeshift points of access to groceries -- the S&R convenience store, Rite Aid, farm stands in the summer; the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank visits St. John the Baptist Church and the YMCA twice a month.
The food club board began planning last year. At the same time, Michael McClung was creating his own answer to the market void in the neighborhood. He opened D'Andrea's Italian Deli adjacent to the former Dimperio's and began stocking some groceries that don't run the risk of spoiling.
He said he is interested in expanding his grocery offerings into a former bar beside his shop.
"I told him, 'We do not want to compete with you,' " said Rev. Boone. "We want you to sell groceries. Our thing is the fresh produce."
Dianne Shenk, a master's degree student in food studies at Chatham University, began volunteering at Loaves and Fishes "as part of my education." She said food-buying clubs are not common and that this is an interesting example of how people solve the food-desert problem.
She has become the club's volunteer coordinator with service to Hazelwood Towers.
The other day, she suspected that Ethel and Evelyn's orders were mixed up. "I'm sure she [Ethel] wanted smoked turkey." She started out the door. "I'll just go to Squirrel Hill and buy some."