Why are people concerned about food deserts?

What About Food?

Hazelwood and Glen Hazel neighborhoods have been classified by the USDA as “food deserts”, but what does this mean? The USDA definition of a food desert is “a low-income census tract with a substantial number or share of residents with low levels of access to retail outlets selling healthy and affordable foods.” In this definition, low-income means “a poverty rate of 20% or greater, or a median family income at or below 80% of the statewide or metropolitan area median family income” and low-access means “at least 500 persons and/or at least 33% of the population lives more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.”

In Hazelwood, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 1,193 people, or 23.9% of the population, live at or below the poverty rate. In fact, all three census tracts in Hazelwood and Glen Hazel qualify as low-income under this definition. The closest large grocery store is in Greenfield, and measures 1.37 miles distance and nearly 400 vertical feet from the intersection of Hazelwood Avenue and Second Avenue. This distance is what qualifies the community as a food desert under the USDA definition.

Why do they require a “supermarket or large grocery store?” The reason is that supermarkets and large grocery stores, because they are so big, have the widest selections of food choices and the lowest prices of all food retail outlets. Research shows that low-income households pay less for their food than others do, but they do this by careful shopping, buying store brands, generic brands or items of lower quality. These strategies only work when they have access to the large grocery stores or superstores that carry these brands and have frequent sales of overstocked or damaged items. Even though low-income households pay less for groceries, we need to remember that food purchases always take up a much larger portion of their budget than for higher-income households.

Why are people concerned about food deserts? The reason is that when incomes are tight, it can be hard to pay for a car and keep it running. Without a car to get you to Greenfield, the Waterfront or even West Mifflin, it’s very hard to get to the grocery store and stock up on groceries at reasonable prices. I’ve heard that a jitney trip from the Giant Eagle in Greenfield costs $15.00, and that a trip from WalMart in West Mifflin costs $30.00. When your money is already tight, that’s a lot to pay for transportation.

The low-income variable is important because of transportation. There are lots of higher-income suburban neighborhoods without grocery stores, but people living there can easily drive to buy food in neighboring communities, or even specialty locations like the Strip District, so it doesn’t really matter that there aren’t stores in walking distance. In a community like Hazelwood, there aren’t reasonably priced, healthy food options within walking distance. For some people in the community, that makes a real difference in what food they eat, and can affect whether they are at risk for diet-related health conditions. I’m part of a group that is working to build a fresh food marketplace in Hazelwood to make fresh, healthy foods available in the community. This conversation is happening in connection with the Hazelwood Initiative, so come to meetings if you are interested.

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