This Neighborhood Without a Grocery Store for 40 Years Is Changing How It Gets Good Food

Without a large supermarket to feed local residents, a movement of nonprofits and other initiatives took its place to provide fresh and healthy produce.

by Helaina Hovitz
Dec 4 2017, 7:30pm

Image via Sankofa Village Community Garden

Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood is a food desert -- an area with limited access to affordable or nutritious foods that would otherwise be readily available in other areas. Over two-thirds of the Homewood population is living in poverty, with roughly 30 percent of the population of residents having a household income of less than $10,000 a year. But without a large supermarket to feed local residents, there are a number of nonprofits and other initiatives to take its place to provide fresh and healthy produce.The problem is, many people don’t know where, or how, to access any of it—or, in some cases, afford food at all.

Rachel Bukowitz, 22, decided to change that while attending the University of Pittsburgh. She created a 33-page guidebook for her community that filled a communication gap that prevented residents from utilizing resources they didn’t even know were available to them in order to obtain and afford healthy fresh food. Simple in concept, it connects residents to different programs like including community gardens, food pantries, co-ops, and emergency relief organizations. Each page is full of information about a certain resource, when and where it’s available, contact information, maps, links, along with calendars that show when they’re open.

The guidebook has been an asset in providing neighborhood-specific options that connect residents to the patchwork of different programs available.

The idea for the guidebook came about when, after graduating earlier this spring, Bukowitz went on to work as a food justice fellow for Repair the World: Pittsburgh, a nonprofit focused on engaging young adults in social change around food and education justice. She also worked alongside partner organizations like Just Harvest, a nonprofit focused on educating, empowering and mobilizing people to eliminate hunger, and poverty through public policy, advocating and connecting people to public benefits, and Circles East Liberty, a program designed to break the cycle of generational poverty by offering a relationship-based strategy pairing leaders living below the poverty line with middle- to high-income allies in the community for education, training and other resources.

“During my senior year at Pitt, I was part of the Elsie Hillman Honors Scholars Program, and was partnered with the Homewood Children’s Village (HCV), “ she told VICE Impact. “Their mission is to ensure that every child in Homewood succeeds while simultaneously reweaving the fabric of the community...and make sure that every child in Homewood gets to and through college. In order to achieve that goal, HCV works to eliminate barriers to success both inside and outside of school.”

One of those out-of-school barriers, she found, was a lack of access to nutritious food.

Bukowitz then teamed up with HCV and host a “food talk” at a neighborhood cafe, buying residents coffee in exchange for conversation about their thoughts on Homewood’s food system. She distributed a survey that found residents wanted more healthy food options in Homewood, and would cook using healthy foods if they were available. However, none of the residents said they utilized the options available.

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“Residents spoke about how there used to be fruit trees lining the streets, and how there hasn’t been a grocery store in Homewood for over 40 years. They expressed frustrations about the abundance of processed food in the neighborhood, but the lack of fresh produce,” she recalled.

Forty years is a long time, a period that Rachel attributes to the many shops and stores shut down in Homewood during its large transition in the ‘50s. As white flight increased, and the neighborhood’s population decreased, resources to the neighborhood diminished. Today, she says, most people rely on corner stores for food, or have to take a bus outside of the neighborhood to do their grocery shopping.

Rachel then researched what some possible alternatives could be, and found that there were actually a number of non-traditional ways residents could access fresh produce: farm stands, community gardens, mobile food banks, backyard gardens, aquaponics systems, emergency food assistance programs, fruit stands, culinary arts programs.

There was a clear disconnect between the work being done to address food insecurity—resources that were there, and now in the guide, but unknown to many people in the neighborhood—and it became clear that the majority of ways to bring healthy food into the neighborhood were unknown to many residents; known, but unclear as to how residents could get involved, or; known, but unclear as to when and where they took place.

Bukowitz and HCV then met with and interviewed leaders of organizations involved in Homewood food access, and coordinated interviews that spanned the course several months.

As a result, the Homewood Healthy Food and Gardening Guide was published, providing residents with a resource to obtain healthy fresh food, providing a short synopsis of each initiative and contact information in case people have questions.

There’s Sankofa Village Community Garden, where teenagers are given summer employment to tend to the garden. The teens are taught about urban agriculture to develop food self-sufficiency and they’re provided opportunities like visiting urban agricultural spaces in Detroit. There are also shops like Everyday Café, where its earnings are invested into Homewood-based organizations and causes with a focus on entrepreneurship, youth development and education. It also serves as a community space, and offers healthy dining options.

"Underserved communities typically lack the fundamental resources that allow an individual to thrive due to larger systemic reasons outside of the community’s control.”

“We also included a map labeled with key places for food access in the neighborhood, and a calendar for recurring food access opportunities,” Bukowitz said. “We then distributed the guide around to key places in the community like the library, the local cafe, and all of the places featured in the guide.”

The guidebook has been an asset in providing neighborhood-specific options that connect residents to the patchwork of different programs available, including community gardens, stores, food pantries, co-ops, farmers markets and emergency relief organizations. Bukowitz sees it as a model that could be applied in other situations where a lack of communication keeps residents from accessing healthy food options.

“This is absolutely an issue across the U.S. Underserved communities typically lack the fundamental resources that allow an individual to thrive due to larger systemic reasons outside of the community’s control,” she said.

Bukowitz notes that people can get involved and help by learning about what forces cause certain communities to be underserved, and then asking people of that community how they can best support them.

“It is important to be cognizant of your role in a community, and always being sure to elevate the voices of the historic residents.”

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