Fresh Divide: Could an urban farm help those marooned on Pittsburgh’s Hilltop?

High prices compound an underlying lack of food access for a dozen southern communities.

A groundskeeper watches as a group of students tours the future site of the Hilltop Urban Farm in St. Clair. Once operational, organizers hope the farm will serve as an oasis of fresh produce in the Hilltop, one of Pittsburgh's harshest food deserts.

A groundskeeper watches as a group of students tours the future site of the Hilltop Urban Farm in St. Clair. Once operational, organizers hope the farm will serve as an oasis of fresh produce in the Hilltop, one of Pittsburgh's harshest food deserts.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE
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This is the second of four stories examining food deserts in the Pittsburgh region.

Christina Pistorius travels 10 miles one-way to buy groceries even though there’s a market less than a mile from her home.

“I only get $300 in food stamps for [my children], and I can’t go to Shop ‘n Save,” Pistorius said of her closest supermarket. “I have to make it last all month. Shop ‘n Save is more convenient, but I just can’t afford it.”

So Pistorius drives to the Walmart in West Mifflin. Sometimes she drives to Aldi on the South Side, still a seven-mile round trip from her Mt. Oliver home.

In both cases, she’s chasing lower prices in more affluent neighborhoods.

It’s a phenomenon that’s been dubbed the “ghetto tax,” a euphemism referring to the higher prices for goods and services often paid by the poorest Americans. There are various reasons for it, but two involve the bulk purchasing power of both customers like Pistorius and the retailers that serve Hilltop neighborhoods like hers. In short, customers who can’t afford to buy in bulk miss out on volume discounts. Retailers who can’t afford to buy in greater bulk end up passing along higher costs to those same customers.

In the Hilltop, a dozen communities on Pittsburgh’s southern end, high prices compound an underlying lack of food access.

Zooming in on Pittsburgh's Hilltop neighborhoods, this USDA map shows low-income census tracts where more than 100  households do not have a vehicle and are more than ½ mile from the nearest supermarket.

Zooming in on Pittsburgh's Hilltop neighborhoods, this USDA map shows low-income census tracts where more than 100 households do not have a vehicle and are more than ½ mile from the nearest supermarket.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Food Access Research Atlas

Marooned on the Hilltop

Candice Benson of Arlington is a client and volunteer with a food bank run by the Brashear Association at the Henry Kaufman Neighborhood House on Salisbury Street in the South Side Slopes. On a recent Thursday, nearing the end of their shift, Benson and one of her sons sat in a room of the rec center, a lone box of donated yams nearby.

“I’m blessed to have a car,” Benson said. Like Pistorius, she uses it to grocery shop at the Walmart in West Mifflin, where she’s found her monthly disability check goes much farther than it would locally.

“But there are a lot of people who can’t get to food banks or grocery stores due to limited transportation along with limited incomes,” she said.

Benson sees these folks at the food bank. She’s seen them cry when told their monthly allotments had been exceeded. (Emergency orders are sometimes granted.) Marooned on the Hilltop, Benson said, food banks are a lifeline.

“Some people with health issues really like to rely on green vegetables a lot, but they’re so expensive, and so they can’t,” she explained.

The Hilltop’s food access barriers are also natural, owing to the steep terrain that’s difficult for many to traverse even without a 100-pound grocery order to tote.

Karin Lysaght of Beechview, a Hilltop-adjacent neighborhood, said she sometimes goes door-to-door taking grocery orders for neighbors without access to a vehicle.

“Whenever we do go to the store, no matter where we’re going, we always ask our next-door neighbor and the gentleman that lives down the street, because he doesn’t have a car. So we’re always asking them if we can pick something up for them,” she said.

Considering vehicle access in the definition, low access areas are places where at least 100 households that do not have a car are more than ½ mile from the nearest supermarket, super center or large grocery store, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sarah Baxendell, director of green space projects with the Hilltop Alliance, stands on a picnic table and addresses visitors at the farm on Aug. 22, 2018.

Sarah Baxendell, director of green space projects with the Hilltop Alliance, stands on a picnic table and addresses visitors at the farm on Aug. 22, 2018.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE

‘A story of poverty’

This is the recipe behind Pittsburgh’s southern food deserts and food deserts elsewhere in the city: Fewer markets, greater distances between them, less traversable distances between them and, on top of that, higher prices. Food insecurity and food deserts are often intertwined here.

“It’s really a story of poverty,” said Sarah Baxendell, director of green space projects with the Hilltop Alliance. The alliance is behind the planned Hilltop Urban Farm at the former site of the St. Clair Village housing project. Once operational, the farm will be the biggest of its kind in the country and a key source of fresh, whole foods for Pittsburgh and surrounding Hilltop neighborhoods.

“If we’re talking about food access, then, from a broad perspective, of the 11 Hilltop neighborhoods, nine are food deserts with no fresh produce of any kind available,” Baxendell said. “Then two neighborhoods, Mount Washington and Carrick, are considered food gaps. Each has one grocery store, and Carrick now has a farmers market.”

Tracy Frank, director of services for The Brashear Association, the South Side-based charity serving families from Hilltop neighborhoods, said food insecurity is an all-consuming issue for some of their clients.

“This becomes their No. 1 focus,” Frank explained. “Everything else — finding a job or finding a better job or getting their kids into middle school — everything else gets put on the back-burner because they have these really pressing food security issues.”

Frank said patronage of the association’s food pantry hit a high around 2009 “where the usage was absolutely ridiculous.” She said the numbers lowered after that but have been rising steadily for the last five years. She theorizes that some of this owes to the relocation of residents who are being driven out of other parts of the city by rising rents, even though they’re rising on the Hilltop, too. They arrive there with the same needs, driving up demand for services like those offered by Frank’s organization.

But Baxendell is skeptical that the arrival of new Hilltop residents will lead to the arrival of new Hilltop grocers or better food access.

An influx of grocers is unlikely given the size of the neighborhoods, the fact that the topography isn’t changing and that the public transit routes are unlikely to change anytime soon, she said. Additionally, a scattered framework of existing grocery store franchises makes it harder to advocate for better offerings or compel changes.

Small-scale interventions are working but with limited impact, she added. Shelly Danko+Day, Pittsburgh’s urban agriculture and food policy adviser, said less than 0.25 percent of all food sales in the City of Pittsburgh are happening at farmers markets.

“Some community projects are growing food that’s not for sale and giving it to neighbors, which works well for portions of those communities but does not address the underlying issues,” Baxendell said.

A picnic table at the future Hilltop Urban Farm site in St. Clair.

A picnic table at the future Hilltop Urban Farm site in St. Clair.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE

‘Have you ever seen beets before?’

Once a reality, the Hilltop Urban Farm will exist on a much larger scale. Fully active, the farm will multiply Pittsburgh’s food supply by 400 percent and quadruple the amount of food grown within the city limits, based on its acreage.

But will a significant enough number of Hilltop residents become patrons? If they think it’s worth it.

Enter Eva Barinas of Grow Pittsburgh, a group supporting the development of school and community gardens across Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. Barinas said the children she works with in places like the Hilltop have sometimes never heard of or seen certain vegetables.

“Sometimes we ask students we’ve worked with, ‘Have you ever seen beets before?’ and they’ll say ‘no.’ We asked about swiss chard. No one knew what swiss chard was there for a while,” Barinas said. “Everybody knows carrots.”

But over time, Barinas said, the vegetables become more familiar and less esoteric to the kids — vegetables become a part of the basic concept of food reinforced by what you see and, of course, what you eat.

“You can have students who know [vegetables] taste good and make them feel good, but then also it’s what’s available,” Barinas said. “If you walk from home to school and the only thing in between home and school is a convenience store that only holds soda and sugary, salty foods, then you get used to it and that becomes more familiar.”

This dovetails with a larger discussion about the nature of food deserts and questions of whether it’s access — proximity to grocers and retailers — or engrained food habits, learned nutritional behaviors, and costs that contribute to the nation’s and Pittsburgh’s nutritional divide. Food access influences food choices, but food attitudes do as well, Barinas said. But once changed or developed, those tastes and attitudes need retail opportunities to thrive.

While there are delis and bakeries opening on the Hilltop, entrepreneurs have yet to develop a grocery-store model “where the market returns are sufficient for the population,” Baxendell added.

“If stores don’t accept SNAP or WIC,” she continued, “that doesn’t help either.”

The Hilltop Urban Farm is billed as an intervention on a much larger scale, larger than anything seen on the Hilltop in a long time — maybe ever.

But that reality is still years away and in the meantime residents like Jessica Paquette, who couldn’t buy white milk for her two kids at the local dollar store, are still trying to work out the logistics of a run-of-the-mill grocery run.

“I had a cart that I used to use but it broke,” she said. “Without it I probably can carry six to eight bags depending on what’s in them. It’s a lot harder to shop by bus — and that’s if you have bus fare.”

She added, “I’m completely out of milk and bread. And there’s a lot of people that have trouble with the grocery shopping. Now I’m one of them.”

Disenfranchised and disillusioned, a growing number of organizers and activists in places like the Hilltop are turning to homegrown alternatives, like non-profit grocery stores and community gardens, in an attempt to fill in the void.

Editor’s Note: Come back each day to read the next installment of this four-part series examining local food deserts, and sign up here to get these stories in your inbox each morning:


How you can help

Here’s what local experts say is most helpful to your fellow Pittsburghers — from volunteering to donating to getting out the vote.

With your time:

  • Attend a Food Policy Council meeting, which are open to the public, and get involved with one of the council’s groups.
  • Drive food to local communities, most within a 15-minute drive, after downloading the 412 Food Rescue app.
  • Volunteer with Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op (BUGs) by emailing blackfarmerscoop@gmail.com.
  • Volunteer at Homewood’s Sankofa Village Community Garden’s work days, donate to the garden, or buy produce in the summer.

With your money:

  • Attend an upcoming Harambee’s Backyard Market.
  • Buy produce at small corner stores to show merchants that it’s valuable to stock those items, said Sarah Buranskas of the Food Policy Council.
  • Donate money (or your time) at the food bank.
  • Shop at your local farmers market.

With your vote:

  • Attend a Food Policy Council event to learn from local experts about legislation like the farm bill or SNAP.
  • Contact your elected representatives. “Pittsburghers need to make sure that urban agriculture is evenly distributed in black communities” by making sure they get grants for gardening projects and holding leaders accountable, said Ayanna Jones of Sankofa Village Community Garden.
  • Sign up for alerts on the food bank’s website to find out when to contact your legislators.
  • Vote for candidates who support equity — and have the voting record to prove it, said Helen Gerhardt of Just Harvest.

This series was supported by The Pittsburgh Pitch, a project of 100 Days in Appalachia, and the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.