It's Saturday morning and Father Dan Walsh and his neighbor Jim McCue have joined the throngs of Pittsburghers who shop in the Strip District, a veritable Mecca of fresh foods. The men split up long grocery lists. "I'll get the fish and see you over there", says Walsh to McCue.
After about an hour, the two load fresh meats and cases of vine ripe vegetables and fruits into an old pickup truck. They drop off the food at the basement of the Hazelwood Presbyterian church where Pastor Leslie Boone and neighbors weigh the produce, and carefully match grocery items to numbered grocery bags. "OK, two oranges for number ten."
"It's a unique little animal we have going on here. We're glorified grocery shoppers for folks", says Boone. Leslie Boone would admit that "grocery shoppers" is a bit of a simplification. For the past year, the Presbyterian Church and others have worked with consultants to form a "food buying club" in Hazelwood, a low-income Pittsburgh neighborhood. The Club's 40 members place grocery orders through the church and buy fresh food in bulk.
Hazelwood lost its last full service grocery store in 2009. As people line up to pick up their grocery orders, Margie Chippich and Gloria Ferguson explain the nearest supermarkets are now more than a mile away. Ferguson, a senior citizen, says that distance makes it hard for the neighborhood's many older people who don't drive and folks without cars to buy fresh food. Margie Chippich points to her husband, Ralph. She says, "I don't drive so to go to a store if he's laid up or in the hospital, I'd have to take buses or call somebody. You can't buy anything in Hazelwood."
There's been talk among supermarket chains about locating in Hazelwood, but no action so far. Boone says that's why the churches are stepping in. "We don't want us to be waiting 20 years for a grocery store to be here because in the meantime, we're watching our community being depleted and being discouraged and the more you're depleted and discouraged, you move out for something better."
When communities become more isolated, it becomes less likely that supermarkets will come back. Studies by The Food Trust, a nationally known nonprofit in Philadelphia, have found that financing is a big obstacle to grocers opening new stores, especially in poor neighborhoods.
Some grocers who are willing to locate in underserved areas have found help through the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative. The initiative is managed by The Reinvestment Fund, a community development group in Philadelphia that works with public and private investors. Since 2004 The Fund has financed close to 90 grocery stores in low income communities like Vandergrift, northeast of Pittsburgh. Randy Sprankle, the owner of this market, says the Reinvestment Fund allowed him to keep open the only grocery store in town and put local people to work. "We have 18 employees. Five full time and 13 part- time. All of that money goes back into Vandergrift," says Sprankle.
Back in Hazelwood, Pastor Boone is hopeful that year round access to affordable fresh food will change the way her community eats and help to keep her neighborhood intact. As they finish bagging the last orders, she smiles.