The first data from research into the food decisions of 1,372 households in the Hill District and Homewood were recently presented in both neighborhoods as part of a five-year Rand Corp. study.
The PHRESH study -- Pittsburgh Hill/Homewood Research on Eating, Shopping and Health -- was funded by a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and began in 2011 to analyze eating, shopping and health decisions people make in neighborhoods described as "food deserts" for lack of full-service grocery options. Neither the Hill nor Homewood has had a full-service store for decades.
Lead investigator Tamara Dubowitz said the study is the first of its kind to track a grocery store's impact on food-buying habits in a neighborhood over time. Follow-ups of the 902 Hill District participants will weigh the impact of the new Shop 'n Save when it opens on Centre Avenue across from the Hill House. The opening is anticipated next year, but construction has yet to begin.
Homewood is included because its feedback will inform the research team about "changes that may be happening that are unrelated to the opening of a grocery store," Ms. Dubowitz said. "If we see changes in just the Hill District and not Homewood, we can more confidently conclude that the changes were due to the opening of the grocery store."
With assistance from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, the researchers have tracked food purchases, eating histories, transportation to and from shopping, health conditions, neighborhood perceptions and family size, age, and income.
Participants are promised anonymity and were given $40 to participate. Eighteen residents of the two neighborhoods are employed as data collectors.
"What our team is interested in is how where you live may impact your life," Ms. Dubowitz told a gathering of about 30 people at the Hill House recently. "We are extremely interested in seeing how things change when the store opens. This information should be something you can use."
La'Vette Wagner, the study's field coordinator, said she was born and raised in the Hill, "and this job has increased my passion to learn more about it, and to learn about Homewood. I was excited about the people who wanted to do the interviews. I think people were happy that someone was asking their opinion. When we told them it would take two hours, some people said, 'That's too long,' but when we came to the last question, they said, 'That's it?' "
The data collected were similar in the two neighborhoods. About half the participants were between the ages of 45 and 64, most were female and most households did not have children at home. Two-thirds earn less than $20,000 a year.
About half the participants said they have sometimes worried their food would run out before they could afford to return to a full-service grocery; 42 percent reported that they did run out between trips.
Ms. Dubowitz said 80 percent of the survey participants were eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly called food stamps), but only 47 percent were receiving those benefits. Nationally, 69 percent of eligible people apply for SNAP, she said.
Hill District participants travel an average of 3.7 miles for the big shopping trip. Homewood participants averaged 3.5 miles.
While people in neighborhoods that have grocery stores travel farther for selective shopping, the lack of options in the Hill and Homewood might seem to make distance a more clear-cut indication of need. But 50 percent of Hill residents in the study and 31 percent of those from Homewood reported they do not shop at the closest store to their homes.
Ms. Dubowitz said many factors might explain that, from work location to the quality of food in the stores.
"A lot has to do with the role of transportation," she said. Considerations might include accessibility to a bus stop or availability of jitney service.
Most residents of the Hill who were interviewed live closest to the Shur Save in Bloomfield, but only 4 percent reported shopping there. Twenty-two percent lived closest to the South Side Giant Eagle, but 48 percent said they shopped there.
About 71 percent of Homewood residents interviewed live closest to the Shakespeare Street Giant Eagle, and 42 percent -- the largest share -- shop there. About 40 percent of the residents who live closest to the Giant Eagle on Frankstown Road in Penn Hills shop there.
When the Shop 'n Save opens in the Hill, the researchers will look at whether its offering of nutritious food causes more people to shop there.
Ms. Dubowitz said it is known that people who live near healthy food outlets are healthier than people who don't, but whether the proximity is the cause has never been established.
The researchers visited every store in both neighborhoods that sell anything edible and all the stores where their subjects shop. They took note of the type of food sold, the quality, the price and variety.
Of the Hill District's retailers who sell anything edible, three offered choices of fruit, one had fresh vegetables and all carried soda pop and snack food. In Homewood, all the retailers of anything edible sold junk food and none sold fruit or vegetables.
Researchers will conduct interviews every year through 2016.
The spring survey will focus on physical and mental health, sidewalk conditions, transportation and other connective opportunities.
Shannah Tharp-Taylor, a study investigator and community liaison, said the study on physical health so far has shown a contrast between health and perception.
"Although two-thirds of the people say they are in good or excellent health," she said, "two-thirds have hypertension or diabetes."