Why residents in one underserved community started eating better

 
 The arrival of a single grocery store in one of Pittsburgh's low-income community changed the way residents thought of their neighborhood, which seemed to improve health overall.

The arrival of a single grocery store in one of Pittsburgh's low-income community changed the way residents thought of their neighborhood, which seemed to improve health overall.

When the owners of a grocery store opened its doors eight years ago in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, they became part of a bold new experiment. The neighborhood hadn’t had a full-service grocery store in 30 years and only 37 percent of local residents were employed. Researchers at Rand Corporation took note: What happens to eating behavior, they asked, when a food desert turns into a food oasis?

In this case, people started eating better - more vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Less sugar, processed foods, and calories. Curiously, it's not because people started frequenting the grocery store. In fact, researchers found the majority of residents made these changes without ever shopping there.

People started eating better...but not because they shopped at the new grocery store.

Did just having a store in the neighborhood and knowing it was easier to get good food make the difference? Two years after the original study, researchers decided to do a follow up.

"We asked, 'Are there other things that could explain residents making healthier choices after a new grocery store opens—economic reasons that help residents improve their health and diet?'" explains researcher Andrea Richardson in the Pacific Standard. Her study was published recently in the Annals of Epidemiology.


perception of the neighborhood improved 

The second study confirmed the health advantages that come with investing in a poor neighborhood. In the year after the store opened residents reported a 12 percent drop in feeling anxious about getting enough food. There was also a drop in participation in SNAP, a food assistance program.

Researchers theorized that the new store benefitted its residents by anchoring the community and attracting more businesses, like coffee shops and restaurants. This in turn, made the neighborhood a nicer place to live. 

"Hill District residents' perceptions of their neighborhood improved," Richardson told Pacific Standard. "Your sense of how much you like where you live may cause more hopefulness and less stress," both of which affect physical health.

Takeaway: There's more than one takeaway here, but bringing new businesses and activity into underserved communities may improve the quality of health for residents overall.