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By David Templeton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Shop’n Save supermarket that opened in October 2013 in the Hill District hasn’t boosted consumption of fruits, vegetables or whole grains there, but residents have been eating fewer total calories and fewer added sugars since it opened, a study has found.

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
The Shop’n Save supermarket that opened in October 2013 in the Hill District hasn’t boosted consumption of fruits, vegetables or whole grains there, but residents have been eating fewer total calories and fewer added sugars since it opened, a study has found.
By David Templeton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Placing a supermarket in a food desert such as the Hill District led to improvements in diet and in perceptions residents have about access to healthier foods.

Those are the findings of a RAND Corp. study published online Monday in Health Affairs, based on the opening of the Shop’n Save store in October 2013 at 1850 Centre Ave. in the Hill District.

The study caused some confusion that researchers are working to explain, with beneficial changes observed regardless of whether residents used the store or not. The market did generate a greater sense of satisfaction with their neighborhood as a place to live.

It didn’t boost consumption of fruits, vegetables or whole grains, but Hill District residents have been eating fewer total calories, fewer empty calories and fewer added sugars since it opened. It’s an important finding in research that has been somewhat disappointing with grocery store construction in low-income food deserts failing to translate into improved eating habits, weight loss or health levels.

“I think the study was very well done,” said Hill District resident Phyllis Ghafoor, after results were presented at a Hill District forum Monday. “When you have nothing and can only get canned foods and things high in sugar, you appreciate better access to food. I see the progress here and it’s really astounding.”

The study, led by Tamara Dubowitz, a senior policy researcher at RAND, compared about 1,370 residents in the Hill District and Homewood, which have similarly large percentages of African-American residents.

In the United States, 23.5 million people live in low-income areas considered to be food deserts with large grocery stores located more than one mile away. This limits their access to fresh and healthy affordable food.

Follow-up research within 12 months after the Hill District grocery store opened found obesity (based on body mass index) unchanged in the neighborhood but slightly worse in Homewood. In one conclusion, the study determined the grocery store was responsible for dietary improvements in the Hill District but with no links to the foods purchased there.

“Incentivizing supermarkets to locate in food deserts is appropriate,” the study says. “However, efforts should proceed with caution, until the mechanisms by which the stores affect diet and their ability to influence weight status are better understood.”

Sixty-eight percent of Hill District residents reported using the supermarket at least once a month. Previously, Hill District residents shopped at stores farther away with a preference for the Giant Eagle on the South Side, while many Homewood residents shopped at the Giant Eagle on Shakespeare Street in East Liberty.

“For the most part, the improvements we found reflect decreases in food intake,” the study said. “In spite of the changes we found, a key goal of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative was not achieved. We observed no improvement in weight status.”

However, the study was the first to find significant improvements in multiple dietary outcomes — such as a reduction in sugary foods — and neighborhood satisfaction among residents of a food desert after a supermarket opens.

Allison Karpyn, associate director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Research in Education and Social Policy, said the first-of-its-kind study, during which RAND researchers interviewed residents door to door, had many important findings. Ultimately, she said, it’s unreasonable to expect eating habits to change within a year of a supermarket opening.

“No one ever thought supermarkets were a silver bullet,” said Ms. Karpyn, who holds a doctorate in policy research. “Instead, they are foundations for communities to build upon, and this data show it to be a promising foundation.”

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

Date Published: 
Thursday, November 3, 2016

 

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