Rose Mary Seals recounts the story of a 90-year-old neighbor who would run out of cash for food as it got close to the end of the month.
"She would buy cat food, and she would eat cat food until she got her check," says the 79-year-old Hill District resident.
Others she knows just won't eat. "When you run out of money, there is nothing you can do," Seals says.
The worry over food running out is one that residents in the Hill District and Homewood experience more than those in other communities. The Rand Corporation is in the middle of a five-year research project focused on the two Pittsburgh neighborhoods. According to the first release of data gathered by Rand, 40 to 50 percent of the residents there experience food insecurity, compared to 13 percent of households across Pennsylvania.
"This was something that was a little bit troubling," says Tamara Dubowitz, a Rand senior policy researcher.
Rand's study of the two neighborhoods is significant: About one in every five households — more than 1,400 — is enrolled in the study, one of the largest of its kind in the U.S.
"The purpose is to get a comprehensive understanding of food-access issues and the role of the neighborhood," Dubowitz says.
Those interviewed in the project's first phase were primarily women. About 30 percent were 65 years of age or older, and two-thirds reported living on a household income of less than $20,000 each year.
The study so far confirms what residents already know: Local options for fresh food are scarce. In the Hill, only three of 14 stores selling food offered fruit; only one had a vegetable option. In Homewood, none of the 12 stores offered fruits or vegetables.
The study also noted that residents travel an average of 3.8 miles to shop for groceries, a journey Seals says she is looking forward to shortening when the Shop 'n Save now under construction in the Hill District opens.
Dubowitz says researchers are only just digging into the questions raised, including, for example, whether changes in public-assistance policies could help alleviate food-insecurity worries.
"Our team is working really hard to see how the pieces fit together to better inform policies and solutions to create better food systems," she says.