RAND to study Hill grocery health effects

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After living 30 years without a neighborhood grocery, might Hill District residents buy more fresh fruits and vegetables once the new Shop ’n Save opens on Centre Avenue next year? Would they eat less fast food? Will changes in dietary options and the store’s proximity, have a measurable effect on their health?

These are just some of the questions that will be asked by RAND Corp. investigators who are partnering with the Hill House Association for the five-year, $2.7 million study being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“The Hill House Association is excited to partner with RAND on this significant study and more importantly to learn of its findings,” said Victor Roque, president and CEO of Hill House Association. “The study will serve as a national model for understanding the health benefits of residents of urban communities having access to a full-service grocer.”

The study will follow and monitor 1,000 households in the Hill. To conduct study surveys, RAND and the Hill house will hire 15 data collectors and a full-time field coordinator to interview residents. The study will be based in RAND’s field office at the Hill House.

The study is the first in the United States to examine how changing the food environment of a neighborhood by adding a full-service grocery store affects the overall health of local residents. Lead investigator Tamara Dubowitz said the study is unique because it will begin monitoring residents before the grocery is constructed and will follow them after it becomes operational “to gauge how the new store affects their health and lifestyle over time.”

“Many preventable illnesses are directly linked to the quality of the foods we eat,” she said. “But there is a tremendous gap in our understanding of how changing the neighborhood environment, and specifically geographic access to high quality healthy foods, can potentially affect residents’ health. This study will be in instrumental in filling those gaps.”

The study, Dubowitz said, will cover three broad areas:

•Understanding the current availability, prices and access to healthy and less-healthy food options within food retail venues before and after the introduction of a full-service grocery store;

•Determining how the introduction of a full-service grocery store changes food purchasing behaviors (such as where, what type and how often food is purchased, and the amount of money spent on food) and dietary intake, and

•Examining how these associations may be affected by socio-cultural factors and neighborhood resident perception around issues of quality food access and availability.

Dubowitz said the study would also include a comparison to neighborhood that is socio-demographically similar to the Hill that has no grocery store, and will not be getting one within the study time frame.

“The idea is to track whether a grocery makes a difference. So we’ll look at a similar neighborhood that we know won’t change,” she said. “We want to speak to individuals in that neighborhood before we announce it to the media.”

Data collectors will conduct the first household interviews in March 2011, then another in March 2013. Collectors will also conduct audits of every food outlet in the Hill and the comparison community to evaluate the availability of healthy and less healthy food items.

Dubowitz noted that President Obama has included $400 million in the 2011 budget to eliminate “food desserts,” neighborhoods like the Hill with limited access to high quality or healthy foods, in hopes of improving overall community health.

“But you have to remember that a grocery will have more unhealthy than healthy choices. So there is no guarantee it will make people eat healthier,” she said. “That’s why this data is so unique, it’s what’s needed to see if this actually has the desired effect.”

Dubowitz said the final results should be released by January 2015, but because it is the first study of this kind, she expects some preliminary findings to come out earlier.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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