Food deserts

Mapping hunger in Pittsburgh

Mapping hunger

Where are Pittsburgh's food deserts?

Nicole Adams of Observatory Hill uses Fresh Access tokens to purchase vegetables at the North Side Farmers Market.
Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette
Nicole Adams of Observatory Hill uses Fresh Access tokens to purchase vegetables at the North Side Farmers Market. Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette

Larimer is a neighborhood of opposites: Sitting on the southern border is the booming Bakery Square development, filled with shops, restaurants and Pittsburgh’s Google offices, a glowing symbol of the city’s economic rebound. But less than a mile north, hundreds of low-income residents lack access to affordable, fresh and healthy food.

The stretch of Larimer is one of many pockets of hunger in Pittsburgh, a city in which 47 percent of residents live in what are known as food deserts, according to a 2012 Department of Treasury report. In fact, among mid-sized cities, Pittsburgh has one of the highest percentages of people experiencing food insecurity.

This may seem surprising, with the dizzying number of restaurants opening in the area. But restaurants don’t improve access to food, nor do they make it easier to feed families. Restaurants are usually not an affordable option for healthy meals.

Food insecurity isn't just a citywide problem, it's nationwide. Despite improvements over the past few years, the latest data show that 15 million children in the U.S. live in households struggling with hunger. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced on Friday a recommendation that pediatricians screen all children for food insecurity.

Despite the city's economic rebound, many Pittsburghers are being left behind.

In Pittsburgh, various groups have mobilized to address the challenges that come with hunger. They've created urban farms, food pantries and produce distributions. In some places, they've equipped hungry school kids with backpacks of food for the weekend. Yet the problems remain too significant to ignore.

According to the U.S.Department of Agriculture, food deserts are city neighborhoods or tracts that are more than a mile from a grocery store or rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket. Some nonprofits look at the percentage of residents who live a half-mile from a grocery store, especially elderly people without cars, who would have difficulty walking that distance.

“Both the experience and measurement of living in a food desert is complicated,” said Tamara Dubowitz, senior policy researcher for Rand Corp., a public policy nonprofit. “The concept of ‘food desert’ seems easy to understand. But when we talk about it from a public health and public policy perspective, we are talking about access to healthy food options. That might take form in terms of geographic distance, but it could also take form in understanding in-store marketing of healthy and unhealthy options and how that influences choice.”

Here’s the breakdown of the local picture on food insecurity:

▪ At least 20,000 low-income city residents live a mile or more from a grocery store, and 85,000 live more than a half-mile from one.

▪ Countywide, the numbers are greater, with 87,000 low-income residents a mile from a store, and 244,000 living more than a half-mile from one.

There are many reasons why so many Pittsburgh residents live in food deserts. It starts with topography.

“With all of Pittsburgh’s hills, valleys, rivers and bridges, there’s more isolation and it’s more difficult to get from here to there,” said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, an advocacy group based on the South Side. “It’s both a physical issue and a psychological issue in that those barriers can make a market seem far away and outside of a person’s comfort zone."

At a time when Pittsburgh’s economy was in a free fall in the 1980s and people started moving away, stores such as A&P and Thorofare left the Pittsburgh market because of high labor costs here. Then Cincinnati-based Kroger closed all of its 45 stores in the Pittsburgh region, prompted by a labor dispute.

In response to competition from big-box stores such as Walmart opening in the suburbs, Giant Eagle, following a trend around the country, expanded its holdings in the region and closed smaller stores in favor of fewer superstore destinations. By 2007, Giant Eagle owned 54 percent of the region’s market share, according to an industry tracking report by Market Scope. More recently, Progressive Grocer, a different tracking group, found that as of October 2014, Giant Eagle held 28 percent of the market, with Walmart at 26 percent.

“The fact that this consolidation was happening in conjunction with all of the city’s other economic problems, it made the effects more severe and longer lasting,” Mr. Regal said.

Despite the city’s economic rebound, many Pittsburghers are being left behind.

Traci Weatherford-Brown, director of development for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, said that more people need meals this year compared with last year in Allegheny County and across the 10 other counties the food bank serves. Currently, the organization needs to provide 28 million meals in Allegheny County per year and 60 million meals in its full service area. Right now, it can cover only half of them. The goal is to meet the full need in 10 years.

When people are hungry, the city suffers. Productivity slides. Public school and health care costs increase. It’s simple: When you’re hungry, you can’t focus, function or fight illness. Charities have more to do. A national study on Hunger in America last year cited that Pennsylvania is one of 12 states with an increase between 2007 and 2010 of more than $1 billion in expenses related to poverty and hunger.

Who is affected?

Jeanette Coleman has lived on the Garfield side of Penn Avenue for more than 10 years. From her house, it takes a half-hour to walk to the Giant Eagle on Shakespeare Street in Shadyside and 15 minutes to ride the bus the 1½-mile route. If she wanted to go to the Market District on Centre Avenue a little over a mile away, there is no direct bus.

Without a car, Ms. Coleman can carry only so much. “That cuts down on the amounts of fruits and vegetables, because we have to carry those things,” she said. “Carrying a bag of apples takes up a lot of space.”

Aldi is scheduled to open in her neighborhood before Thanksgiving, taking the place of a Bottom Dollar store that closed in January. It will make things better, but it won’t solve problems.

“What becomes crippling is the winter time,” said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., “when you’re lugging groceries back to the community and then you’ve got a long walk up the hill if you live in the Garfield Commons development. So it’s not a very pleasant prospect if you do not have a car. And that’s the issue for hundreds of residents of Garfield.”

Carrying groceries and packages on crowded buses makes shopping without a car more difficult. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

The trek has also been a factor in Hazelwood. Many people go through a routine like Elaine Price did when she moved to the neighborhood without a car 20 years ago. To get to the grocery store, she took two buses then walked to the South Side Giant Eagle on Wharton Street. She took a jitney home. The round-trip took three hours, a journey she repeated every two weeks.

Ms. Price had to learn how to shop more economically and how to prevent food from spoiling between trips, part of what she called “food desert living.”

Other stretches of neighborhoods that are food-insecure include East Hills, Homewood, Oakland, Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, Spring Garden, Arlington, Knoxville and Allentown. Both Just Harvest and the food bank focus efforts on 14 neighborhoods with census tracts that have high percentages of low-income residents.

Some neighborhoods that had been labeled food deserts in 2010 and 2012 are turning around. Others defy the “desert” connotation in that they’re bustling with restaurants, but there is nowhere to buy groceries.

Take Oakland, where University of Pittsburgh students have access to plenty of bar and restaurant food, but no traditional grocery store. One place where students used to shop, the Giant Eagle on Centre Avenue, closed in the 2000s. And in what had been a food mart at Atwood and Bennett streets, the windows are papered and a sign announces the arrival of a new frozen yogurt shop. Some people shop at Las Palmas market on Atwood, IGA on Forbes Avenue or other smaller groceries in the neighborhood.

College-age patrons crowd Hemingway's Cafe last July in Oakland. Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

In March 2015, Pitt students in the group PittServes partnered with Bellefield Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue to create Pitt Pantry. Twice a month, students can pick up food staples at the church. About 60 students used it the first month.

“The Pitt Pantry’s goal is to fill the gaps in the college diet to ensure that our students are properly nourished and can function at their full capacity for their work,” said Holly Giovengo, pantry coordinator and AmeriCorps/VISTA worker.

A group effort

The biggest challenges today for organizations that address food insecurity “are related to the growing political polarization of Americans and the social isolation of both the wealthy and of people living in poverty,” Mr. Regal said.

“There has been a breakdown in what had been a long-standing social consensus that fighting hunger with a strong safety net was a public good, not an overspending, left-wing boondoggle.”

Education is part of the struggle. Just Harvest has been working with anti-hunger, food policy and food sustainability groups at the local, state and national levels.

Mr. Regal is especially optimistic about Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration; he’s the sixth mayor that Just Harvest has worked with.

“We're doing our best to address food insecurity,” Mr. Peduto wrote in an email. He pointed to the Citiparks-administered GrubUp, the free breakfast, lunch and snack program for children and teens that expanded this summer, along with new urban agriculture rules to let people grow and raise more of their own food.

“But there is so much more to do,” Mr. Peduto wrote. “We’ll be working more with partners [like Just Harvest and the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council] to come up with more ways to make sure all city residents have access to quality, healthy food.”

Closing the gap

Pittsburgh groups have been ramping up their efforts to address food insecurity, with varying degrees of success.

The food bank has been reorganizing how it now distributes food. This switch is related to manufacturers’ producing just enough for demand, starting in 2011, which resulted in less product donated to food banks. Now, farmers and retail stores donate the most to food banks.

In the meantime, the food bank has expanded several shopping pantries, including Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry, which provides 850 clients a year a shopping list based on household size. The idea is to help people buy more nutritious items, yet this type of pantry is more expensive to run.

Just Harvest implemented Fresh Access food bucks in 2013, a program in which people who purchase $5 worth of products using their Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card get another $2 to spend on produce at certain farmers markets. The program has expanded from two farmers markets within the city in June 2013 to 15 farmers markets in the region. Sales have increased 282 percent since the first season. The group is also working on its Fresh Corners initiative with the goal of improving access to healthy food in targeted neighborhoods around Allegheny County.

Grow Pittsburgh has helped spearhead community garden projects in food deserts such as Lawrenceville, in conjunction with Lawrenceville United. Other gardens are independent, serving food-insecure neighborhoods such as Garfield Community Farms in Garfield.

Youth Places helps at-risk youth, ages 16 to 25, land jobs in restaurants, where they learn how to cook and improve their food literacy through a program called Back of the House.

“We believe that the restaurant industry can actually help alleviate food insecurity,” said board member Christina French, publisher of Table magazine.

“Access to food and the role it can play in a person’s life is an absolute vehicle for transformation and integration,” she said. “Food is the great equalizer.”

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. Former interns Gabe Rosenberg, Amaka Uchegbu, Caelin Miltko, Hannah Schwarz, Jewell Porter, Katerina Sarandou and Amy Brooks contributed.


Click a red area of the map
to learn about
a Pittsburgh food desert.

Food bank, pantry or soup kitchen*
Farm truck
Convenience store
Farmers market

* Source: Greater Pittsburgh
Community Food Bank

Population (2010):

Food banks:

Number of food bank clients is on the rise in Pittsburgh

Along Altmayer Street in Sharpsburg, the doors of St. Juan Diego Church all post the same laminated list of food pantry rules, even though each door is less than a foot away from the next.

Tom Mathews, 67, of Sharpsburg gets a box of cookies from volunteer Ethel Marsico at St. Juan Diego Parish food pantry, Sharpsburg. Lake Fong/Post-Gazette

The page lists the hours and dates that the food pantry is open, warns that clients may be dropped from the list if they miss two consecutive dates and reiterates that only pre-interviewed clients will receive food.

It’s jointly run by St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Indiana Township and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with donations from local churches, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and others.

Even with these resources, the pantry is open just the third Thursday of every month from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

The St. Mary’s food pantry is one of three pantries associated with the community food bank open to Sharpsburg residents — an area that has been designated a food desert by the USDA because of low access to grocery stores and fresh produce.

During the summer, John Staud, who has run St. Mary’s food pantry for 18 years, said it serves a little more than 100 households; during the fall the number spikes to more than 130.

“I look forward to it every third Thursday of the month,” said Lisa Dukes-Garner, a Sharpsburg resident who uses the pantry. “It’s something that I constantly have on my calendar.”

Lisa Dukes-Garner of Sharpsburg, who uses the St. Mary's food pantry, relaxes at St. Mary's Church. Caelin Miltko/Post-Gazette

Like the one in Sharpsburg, most of these smaller food pantries may open only once or twice a month, sometimes for only an hour or two.

“Many are volunteer-run, small, community-based programs. They are struggling to keep their doors open and bring in enough funds to pay utility bills,” said Lisa Scales, CEO of the community food bank.

Food pantries limit services to residents of the neighborhood. The most commonly reported reason for refusal of service in Pennsylvania, according a 2014 Feeding America study, was that the potential client lived outside of the food-service area.

The other two community food bank pantries are farther away. One is in Etna and the other is a little more than 6 miles away in the Hampton area.

As more people rely on food banks, the sources for food has been changing. Traditionally, food banks relied heavily on donated canned goods, primarily from national manufacturers. Those food sources have diminished over the years as manufacturing became more efficient and national manufacturers donated less as a result.

At the same time produce donations from local farms have increased. The food is healthier, but it needs a faster distribution process to prevent spoiling.

“We’re transitioning a whole operation that needs to distribute the produce more quickly. It’s a challenge, but it’s one we’re being successful at meeting,” Ms. Scales said.

Their 10 largest pantries are now encouraged to distribute produce weekly.

One of the largest food pantries is the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry, which provides emergency food as well as food for anyone who qualifies for the food pantry and follows a hallal, kosher or gluten-free diet. It is open five days a week and one weekend each month.

The Squirrel Hill pantry, 828 Hazelwood Ave., is a newer model, known as a shopping or choice pantry. Clients are provided with a shopping list based on their household size. The list is made by the Squirrel Hill pantry, which dictates how many items of each category they are allowed to take. When a client checks into the pantry, a volunteer takes the list and helps the client navigate the aisles.

There are extra costs for this system because it takes up more space. “This extra room that we have costs more than renting a single room in a church,” said Matthew Bolton, director of the food pantry.

Fewer than half of the food pantries in Pittsburgh are shopping pantries like the one in Squirrel Hill, Ms. Scales said. The Northside Community Food Pantry at 1601 Brighton Road in Central North Side, which is the largest in the Pittsburgh area, recently finished a successful CrowdRise campaign for improvements to the pantry. It was already a shopping pantry, but operators are making it more accessible for people with disabilities and making the experience less time-consuming.

Where pantries have been getting their food has been changing.

“That’s the preferred method, but not all of our agencies are able to do this. They don’t have the space to provide that kind of opportunity,” Ms. Scales said.

Smaller pantries offer a table so people can swap food items. These pantries face a number of challenges. In Sharpsburg, for example, most of the volunteers are older than 80. Mr. Staud said he is looking for someone to take over the operation.

Potential client interviews, for safety reasons, often require multiple volunteers to be present. One of the primary reasons an applicant is turned away is because his or her income is too high. The community food bank serves people at 150 percent poverty. In 2015 that is $17,655 for a single person and $36,375 for a four-person household.

“Sometimes the system doesn’t want to help you out because they say you have too much income, and how can you have too much income if you don’t even have a job? A lot of times that part of it is kind of baffling to me,” Ms. Dukes-Garner said.

Pantries require an income statement to establish need. Mr. Staud and Sister Lois Spinnenweber, apostolate minister of St. Mary of the Assumption Church, and others are full of stories of people trying to beat the system, especially for services beyond food.

Mr. Staud said he knew of one family that was visiting five food pantries a month and receiving free meals from a school in Oakland. Another man accepted food from the pantry and then proceeded to dump it in his neighbor’s yard.

Pantry operators must check income statements and leases, and often end up visiting empty lots and calling fake landlords to determine eligibility for services.

When the person is authentic, these measures end up being time-consuming. Sister Spinnenweber goes to the gas station with people who request gas money to ensure the money is properly spent. Mr. Staud said they need to see a copy of a lease and call the landlord before they distribute any rent money.

“You can’t believe everything that these people tell you,” he said.

Restricted hours, income eligibility guidelines and residence requirements are not prohibitive, if someone knows he’ll need food ahead. If his pantry is closed, the community food bank has more than 20 emergency food pantry locations.

Hours of assistance vary by pantry. The best way to get 24-hour assistance is to call the United Way’s 211 line. On weekends, the community food bank keeps emergency food boxes at its Duquesne headquarters off Route 837; it can be reached at 412-460-3663.

“At that time, we are meeting the immediate need,” Ms. Scales said. After that, “we identify a pantry that they can go to on a regular basis.”

The Squirrel Hill Food Pantry is one of the community food bank’s emergency food locations. Mr. Bolton said that when he started at the pantry, 2½ years ago, it saw two to five emergency food clients a month.

Now, the pantry sees 20 to 30 emergency food clients a month.

Mr. Staud said the Sharpsburg pantry fields two to three calls each week. The community food bank receives, on average, 30 phone calls for emergency food a month.

Caelin Miltko, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summer intern, is a student at the University of Notre Dame and is spending her junior year at Trinity College in Dublin.

Local pantries adjust as need for food increases

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank supports more than 300 pantries in 11 counties. A team is assigned to work with food desert areas like Sharpsburg.

The food bank focuses on 14 neighborhoods with census tracts that have high percentages of low-income residents. They record serving 4,349 people in these areas, including 1,260 children, 736 seniors and 180 veterans.

In a 2014 study specifically on Pennsylvania food banks, Feeding America said 52.1 percent of food banks reported an increase in use from 2012 to 2013. In Pittsburgh, the food bank said over the past year, they served 121,432 individuals on average each month. In 2007, they served on average 94,000 individuals each month.

Restricted hours, income eligibility guidelines and residence requirements are not prohibitive, if someone knows he’ll need food ahead. If his pantry is closed, the food bank has more than 20 emergency food pantry locations.

Hours of assistance vary by pantry. The best way to get 24-hour assistance is to call the United Way’s 211 line. On weekends, the community food bank keeps emergency food boxes at its Duquesne headquarters off Route 837; it can be reached at 412-460-3663.

“At that time, we are meeting the immediate need,” said Lisa Scales, the food bank’s CEO. After that, “we identify a pantry that they can go to on a regular basis.”

The community food bank receives, on average, 30 phone calls for emergency food a month.

The Squirrel Hill Food Pantry is one of the community food bank’s emergency food locations. Its director, Matthew Bolton, said that when he started at the pantry 2½ years ago they saw two to five emergency food clients a month.

Now, the pantry sees 20 to 30 emergency food clients a month.

John Staud, who oversees the pantry that is run by St. Mary of the Assumption Church and St. Vincent de Paul at St. Juan Diego Church in Sharpsburg, fields two to three calls each week.

Caelin Miltko, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summer intern, is a student at the University of Notre Dame and is spending her junior year at Trinity College in Dublin.

Fresh Access grows sixfold in two years

It was 2004, and the hunger advocacy and policy group, Just Harvest, realized it had a problem. It had been working for the past 18 years to put healthy food on the table for low-income families, and now, because of a recently passed USDA policy, those families were being pushed out of farmers markets. The entire network of markets in Pittsburgh was no longer accessible to those families.

The policy, part of a shift from paper to electronic-based systems, eliminated physical food stamps and replaced them with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, essentially a credit card for food stamp recipients. Before, people enrolled in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the official name of the program, walked right up to farmers’ stands and paid in physical stamps.

“When food stamps became electronic 10 years ago, it destroyed the ability for local farmers to sell” to people with EBT cards, said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest.

The farmers didn’t have the technology to convert cards to money, so families living below the federal poverty line either had to pay out of pocket or ditch the market entirely.

Another option piloted in 2010 faltered, and then in 2013 — nine years after EBT cards were rolled out — Just Harvest finally landed upon something that worked. At just a few markets across the city, it set up kiosks with a wireless scanner to convert EBT bucks to wooden tokens which could be exchanged for food at each participating stand.

The program, called Fresh Access, is only two years in, but, according to Mr. Regal, it has “exploded.”

As of June 30 of this year, EBT sales at all Fresh Access markets have totaled $7,979. In June 30 of 2014, that number was $4,973 and on June 30, 2013, $1,680. The program has almost quintupled. Total EBT sales in 2014 were $25,641, a 37 percent increase from 2013.

Add sales from Fresh Access Food Bucks, a program in which anyone who purchases $5 worth of products using their EBT cards gets another $2 to spend on produce, and the numbers become even more impressive.

According to Emily Schmidlapp, Just Harvest’s Fresh Access coordinator, the program has expanded from just two farmers markets in 2013 to 14.

Nicole Adams of Observatory Hill shops for fresh vegetables with her son Odinn, 3, (left) and a neighbor, Natalia Badamo, 8, Sept. 4 at the North Side Farmers Market. Ms. Adams uses Fresh Access, which allows her to use her food stamps at the market. She said she does about 75 percent of her shopping at the market when it's open. "In the winter I cry. I feel like I get processed junk in my body," she said. Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette

Its new food bucks program is modeled after Philly Food Bucks, which began in Philadelphia in 2010. That program uses the food bucks as a way of bringing newcomers to the farmers markets; in Pittsburgh, it’s used for those who are already purchasing there. Mr. Regal thinks the $5-for-$2 model might be propelling sales to their current numbers, and if the trends in Philadelphia say anything about the potential success of the program, he’s probably right. Since Philly Food Bucks began, there has been more than a 375 percent increase in SNAP sales.

But as much success as Just Harvest’s own program has had in making healthier foods available to SNAP recipients, it isn’t necessarily making those foods fully accessible.

Like any other store, farmers markets are set up where they think they’ll find demand — more affluent neighborhoods, people usually assume. There is no farmers market, for instance, in Hazelwood, which lacks a full-service grocery store.

In fact, most of the food deserts in the Pittsburgh area do not have farmer’s markets. Without the markets, Fresh Access can’t move in, Ms. Schmidlapp said.

Even if farmers markets were to move into those areas, it would still be difficult to say that residents have access to healthy food, said Anne Marie Kuchera, project director of community benefit initiatives at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

“Food access isn’t having healthy foods available to you one day per week,” she said. “If there’s not a market within the community providing healthy foods on an everyday basis, food access will continue to be an issue.”

But what if a market like that existed?

In 2004, the Food Trust, the Philadelphia-based organization responsible for Philly Food Bucks, piloted a program it called the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. The idea was simple: stock the stores already in these neighborhoods with healthier foods.

Selinette Rodriguez, co-owner of Polo Food Market in Philadelphia, arranges the bananas she now offers at her store. David Tavani/The Food Trust

After all, it wasn’t that these areas lacked food stores; it’s just that those stores didn’t offer very healthy options. If the Food Trust could capitalize on those mom and pop stores, often bedrocks of the neighborhoods, they might find a way to offer access all week long.

By 2010, the initiative had reached 40 corner stores throughout the city and become so successful that it became a part of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Get Healthy Philly initiative.

Today, 630 corner stores — defined as stores that are less than 2,000 square feet, have four aisles or less and only one cash register — operate in the city, and the Food Trust has set its sights on expanding the initiative to other cities, one of which is Pittsburgh.

Joyce Petrow and Kristen Police of Tobacco Free Allegheny are in the early stages of working with the Food Trust to create Pittsburgh’s own corner store initiative.

Fresh Access has exploded since it started two years ago.

Six months in, the group, which is part of the Allegheny County Department of Health, has signed up 11 stores to offer healthier options — fresh produce, whole wheat grains and non-fat dairy, for instance — and will be signing on an additional four stores this year.

Each store selects two food categories out of eight total that they will add to their inventory. Tobacco Free Allegheny helps them market their products, offers them $100 and will help them make choices about expanding their inventory down the road.

“It’s not only good for the residents. It’s good for the store owners,” said Ms. Petrow, the chief operating officer. They get free advertising, and they’re able to sell products that may not be available anywhere else in the neighborhood.

But most of the store owners do it simply because they see the need in their communities, said Judy Trombetta, project manager of the Pennsylvania Healthy Corner Store Initiative at The Food Trust.

When a worker with Tobacco Free Allegheny walked into Meme’s Market in June to talk about participating in the initiative, owner Connie Mars “liked the things that she was saying,” and signed up on the spot. Ms. Mars now offers lettuce, tomatoes, bananas, peaches, apples and nectarines, and though she hasn’t seen a change in business, that wasn’t the reason she joined the initiative in the first place.

“We were trying to go healthier for people,” she said. “It’ll help the community.”

Hannah Schwarz, a former summer intern for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a senior at Yale University.

Getting groceries by bus

When Bottom Dollar Food on Penn Avenue opened in Friendship in June 2014, the line snaked around the block. The bordering neighborhood of Garfield hadn’t had a full-service grocery store for 27 years.

And then, all of a sudden, it closed in January, bought out by Aldi, with almost a year before the new store would open.

“Now we’re back in the same dilemma,” said Jeanette Coleman.

Jeanette Coleman of Winebiddle Street, Garfield, describes the difficulties of taking the bus to grocery stores in her area. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

Ms. Coleman has lived on the Garfield side of Penn for at least 10 years, but she has been in Pittsburgh her whole life. She spent her childhood in Oakland, attended school here (she met her now-husband, Douglas, at Robert Morris University) and eventually taught K-5 in in Garfield.

“Growing up in Pittsburgh was OK,” she said. “I guess in today’s definition it might be considered lower class, but I didn’t consider my lifestyle being lower class, because my parents were able to provide everything I needed.

“Given that I am an African-American, we have a little more challenge in terms of what’s available to us in education, what’s available to us for jobs.”

Today, however, without access to a car, Ms. Coleman has few options to shop for food.

“She’s pretty much right about that,” said Rick Swartz, executive director of Bloomfield-Garfield Development Corp.

Aldi is expected to open before Thanksgiving.

Residents pleaded with Aldi earlier this year to open a grocery in Garfield. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

In the meantime, residents have had to rely on the Giant Eagle that is 1½ miles away on Shakespeare Street, a half-hour walk or 15-minute straight-shot bus ride. There’s a Giant Eagle Market District on Centre Avenue in Shadyside 1.1 miles away, and an Aldi nearby on Baum Boulevard, but there’s no bus route that will take her directly there. What adds time is that the bus takes longer outside of rush hour and residents may have to wait an hour between buses.

“What becomes crippling is the winter time,” Mr. Swartz said, “when you’re lugging groceries back to the community and then you’ve got a long walk up the hill if you live in the Garfield Commons Development. So it’s not a very pleasant prospect if you do not have a car. And that’s the issue for hundreds of residents in Garfield.”

Around the corner, across from where Bottom Dollar had been, there is a Family Dollar where Ms. Coleman can get milk, hot dogs and staples such as toothpaste. But there are few meats or vegetables there, and she says that those that are available are marked up.

“Going to Family Dollar is more, because you’re not shopping at price and you have to accept what’s there,” Ms. Coleman said.

“I would get more for my money — maybe if I have $50 a week — if I went to Aldi or Giant Eagle,” she said. If she were more mobile, “I would take a big trip to Giant Eagle, and then I would take a small trip to Family Dollar.”

Grocery shopping at small nearby convenience stores, such as Baker's Dairy in Homewood, often means limited fresh foods at higher prices. Here, Shaquala Venson bags groceries for customers while owner William Baker takes his seat behind the register. Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette

Ms. Coleman used to make the trip about once a week with her friend Connie Moore. Ms. Moore died recently and since then, Ms. Coleman has gone by herself.

This means checking the circulars for coupons, finding transportation or walking and then carrying all the bags back.

Having to walk is the biggest problem, especially when the weather is bad; she can lift only so much.

“That cuts down on the amounts of fruits and vegetables, because we have to carry those things,” she said. “Carrying a bag of apples takes up a lot of space. You’d have to take two trips.”

It ends up being the milk and meat — ground beef, pork chops, fish — that take precedence, with items like potatoes, onions and eggs secondary.

Ms. Coleman bought a grocery cart to make transporting easier, but it’s too big to fit on a bus. Only occasionally can she catch a ride in somebody’s car.

She isn’t sure what the elderly in her neighborhood do for their groceries.

Not all residents of the neighborhood felt the need for a grocery store. Four years ago, when the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. started organizing to advocate for a grocery, Ms. Coleman volunteered to copy and pass out fliers and talk to people about the issue.

“They felt it was too much traffic, that it would be too noisy,” said Ms. Coleman. “It is believed they didn’t want a lot of traffic of African-Americans around in their area.”

Aggie Brose of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. said that residents in the community meetings were concerned about making the corner shop an attractive part of the neighborhood, but residents of Friendship did not necessarily see the urgency of the situation for people on the Garfield side.

“Some of the concerns with Friendship was, ‘Is there a great need for a grocery store on that corner?’ If you go down less than a mile, you have an Aldi opening up, and you have a Whole Foods and other stores,” Ms. Brose said.

Having to walk is the biggest problem, especially when the weather is bad; she can only lift so much.

Ms. Coleman was unconvinced.

“It wasn’t said out blatantly, but you know that people aren’t always blatant with discrimination,” she said. “That’s why it took so long for us to get a grocery store.”

Today, the neighborhood is in transition. The four blocks of Penn Avenue right off her street are in the middle of a $5 million reconstruction project that has been going on since 2013.

“There are a lot of art galleries and coffee shops and pizza places; well, there’s more that needs to be in the neighborhood,” Ms. Coleman said. “I feel that it’s not asking what residents want.”

Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. made compromises on the grocery store, doing away with a lighted sign, adding buffers to reduce noise pollution and planting trees in front of walls to prevent graffiti. The group won approval from the Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment, and they stopped an appeal from opponents in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Bottom Dollar even hired 53 workers from around the neighborhood: all for a grocery with a shelf life of six months.

In March, after Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. circulated a petition and both Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald courted Aldi on their behalf, the supermarket chain announced it would take over the Bottom Dollar space — along with eight other spaces around Pittsburgh.

Until Aldi opens in Garfield, Ms. Coleman will take the bus. And if you ask her what she wants for her new neighborhood store, Ms. Coleman has a grocery list.

“I’m hoping they have good customer service. I’m hoping they have good prices. I hope they have some jobs for people. I hope they have decent wages,” she said. “I hope they are welcoming to the community.”

Gabe Rosenberg, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summer intern, is a senior at Wesleyan University.

Homewood relies on small markets for groceries

A couple of corner markets are trying to serve part of the food needs of Homewood’s 6,400 residents

Kelly Jones, who has lived in Homewood her entire life, recalls seeing some full-service grocery stores in her neighborhood growing up. “There are really only corner stores in Homewood now,” she said.

Perry’s Honeydripper, a business established about two years ago, and Baker’s Dairy, a shop that has been in the neighborhood since the 1960s, use a small-town model of the neighborhood store to try to fill the grocery gap in this neighborhood, one of many among Pittsburgh’s food deserts.

Outside Perry’s Honeydripper at 7006 Frankstown Ave. sit rows of fresh bananas and tomatoes. Inside the store refrigerated shelves display peppers, lemons, grapes, cabbage and apples arranged next to aisles with dry cereals, juices, oatmeal and other pantry foods.

The Honeydripper's crew, from left to right: James Perry (owner), Keita Didi Lee, Jerome Anderson Jr., Nicole and Antonovich Perry. Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette

“We’re here for the mother who needs one green pepper to finish making dinner,” said owner James Perry, 71, of Penn Hills.

"Living in a food desert puts an increased strain on single-parent households," Mr. Perry said. "Often, a parent has to bring his or her children along on the grocery trip. And it can be expensive."

“It seems like they’re shaking people down for the last of their money,” he said, referring to larger stores outside the area. “We’re here for those families.”

Shoppers visiting Perry’s Honeydripper also have the option of buying hot food for breakfast and dinner. The store began accepting WIC and EBT cards nearly a year ago, which has brought even more customers.

“We have customers who come all the way from the South Side for the hot food,” he said.

In fact, demand is so high, “the business has grown by leaps and bounds,” he said.

"Living in a food desert puts increased strain on single-parent households.""

Mr. Perry hopes one day to build a full-sized grocery store in Homewood, staffed by locals.

This, he believes, would solve two problems in the neighborhood: the lack of a full-service grocery store and the lack of jobs.

It would also address the high crime rate in the neighborhood. “A lot of that would stop if people had jobs,” he said. “We need a living wage and fairness in our community.”

Mr. Baker, the owner of Baker’s Dairy at 7300 Hamilton Ave., said that the lack of grocery stores has a lasting impact on the community, especially when it comes to residents’ health.

William Baker, owner of Baker's Dairy in Homewood, stocks basic items on Hamilton Avenue. Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

He said that older people tend to buy foods that are more hearty, like grits, oatmeal and toast. Young people buy quick and cheap items like chips and soda.

He also said his store is limited in size to provide what everyone needs.

“If they need two or three items, they come here,” he said. “But if it’s more, they still have to go elsewhere.”

Jewell Porter, a former summer intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is a senior at Denison University.

Restaurants abound in Oakland, but where do you buy food?

With more than 100 restaurants within close walking distance, Forbes Avenue in Oakland is seldom deserted. The neighborhood brims with eateries and overflows with hungry college students.

Hemingway's Cafe in Oakland last July brimmed with student-age patrons including (seated left to right) Alexa Brinner, Tyler Kim and Olivia Gibson. Lindsay Wineland, assistant manager and waitress, standing second to left, checks their table. Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

But Emily Smith, 25, a server at Mad Mex on Atwood Street, looked unsurprised upon learning that south Oakland is considered a neighborhood with low-supermarket access, where it’s a mile or more to a grocery store.

“Being healthy is almost impossible if you exclusively eat in Oakland,” Ms. Smith said.

The neighborhood had two Giant Eagle grocery stories into the 1990s and mid-2000s. An independent Giant Eagle operated at 3440 Forbes Ave., in Oakland (where the CVS is now) until September 1997. It closed despite receiving rent subsidies and free equipment from Giant Eagle Inc., citing continuing losses, stagnant sales and declining customer base. That Giant Eagle also had served residents living in the Hill District.

Another Giant Eagle operated at 4612 Centre Ave., at Craig Street in Oakland, until it closed in 2006.

Market District, a much larger Giant Eagle on Centre Avenue in Shadyside, is 2 ½ miles from McKee Place, the center of Oakland. But many students say its inventory is too expensive. The Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle on Murray Avenue is a little closer and on a direct bus line, but it is still a hike.

ALDI, Trader Joe’s and Walmart are cheaper than those two stories but are even farther away.

“Today, I sat on the bus for an hour to get to Target,” said Maurice Goodwin, 25, of Central Oakland, referring to the store in East Liberty, a few blocks from Trader Joe’s. “There was lots of traffic but I have to leave Oakland to go grocery shopping.”

Siying Chang, a University of Pittsburgh graduate student from China, said she eats at Chinese restaurants because she can’t find the ingredients for traditional Chinese dishes at supermarkets along the bus line.

“I sometimes travel to Chinese shops to buy special ingredients for food but they are too far away,” she said, adding that she does not own a car.

To help fill some of the gap, IGA in 2008 opened a small market on the second floor of the Strand Building on Forbes Avenue in Oakland. But aisles are too narrow for carts — only hand-held baskets — and it has no parking. IGA, which stands for Independent Grocery Alliance, focuses on urban markets.

Mary Schmidt of Brentwood observes the selection at IGA Market in Oakland in 2008. Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

Grocery shopping is cheaper for students on a budget but many eat out anyway because restaurants are more accessible, said Pitt senior Rachel Goldberger.

She said this is especially concerning because while cheap, Oakland’s fast food is mainly junk food.

“When [students] are eating out, they are trying to eat cheap — not eat healthy,” said Lindsay Wineland, 27, assistant manager of the popular student hangout Hemingway’s Cafe.

“Students will sit and wait until our specials are on to order food so they don’t have to pay full price,” she said.

But thrifty bites have repercussions.

The USDA reports that living in a food desert contributes to poor diet and can lead to higher rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

Allison Graine, 21, a rising senior at Pitt, said on-campus dining is the most healthy and convenient option for students.

"Being healthy is almost impossible if you eat exclusively in Oakland."

Market Central, Pitt’s main dining area, provides buffet-style food options including a salad bar, a sandwich bar and even vegan options.

“Meal plans are convenient because when you don’t have a lot of money, you still have access to food,” Ms. Graine said, adding that students who pay tuition with loans or scholarships can use this funding stream to pay for on-campus food.

But on-campus dining is not affordable for all, and it’s not available to low-income residents in Oakland not affiliated with the university.

At $2,000 a semester, paying for Pitt’s cheapest, universally accessible meal plan out of pocket is more than twice as expensive as spending $50 a week on groceries and eating out once a week instead.

Oakland residents interviewed said despite the dearth of fresh food, a healthy diet is possible.

A farmers market in Schenley Plaza sells local produce in the summer months and into the fall, said Pitt junior Julie Hartz.

Alex Perez, a cashier at Las Palmas — a small food store in Oakland — said the exchange rate from pesos to dollars makes imported Mexican food very cheap.

“Many Mexican people come here because we have produce shipped from Mexico that you can’t get at Walmart and Giant Eagle,” he said.

Other small groceries stores like Groceria Merante, an Italian deli on the corner of Bates Street and Mckee Place — sell cheaper fresh meat and vegetables than some supermarkets.

This small Italian grocery in Oakland was selling local produce including apples, squash and watermelons in September. Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

Ms. Graine said you can get three zucchinis for $2 at Merante’s and buy what would usually be $40 worth of groceries at Giant Eagle for $15.

“I think there is affordable and healthy food in Oakland,” said Pitt sophomore Cyd Johnson.

“You just need to know where to look.”

Amaka Uchegbu, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summer intern, is a junior at Yale University.

International markets fill in for grocery stores

Leticia Rea moved to Beechview from Mexico 17 years ago, and she found she was in good company. The South Hills neighborhood has over the past few years become a hotspot for Latino residents and Mexican immigrants in particular.

“That’s nice that we’re a community that’s getting big,” Ms. Rea said. “It’s nice that we have a Mexican grocery up here, too, because some things you cannot find, the things you used to eat.”

Ms. Rea, who works as a housekeeper, has a family of six — four children, herself and her husband. They live just around the corner from the Las Palmas/IGA grocery on Broadway Boulevard, which also operates a taco stand outside. For cooking the Mexican food she’s used to having at home, the specialty store is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Andres Ramires of Oakland fixes a Mexican taco at the Las Palmas/IGA in Beechview. Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

“Sometimes we make pasta and things like that, but my kids, they were born here, they get used to the Mexican food,” Ms. Rea said. “There is like special juices, cheese from Mexico, that you cannot find at any other store, tortillas, different kinds of peppers. The kids like to go to the store to buy spicy stuff.”

She wishes there were more options in her neighborhood, though, if she wants higher quality fresh produce or meat than what she believes is available in Beechview.

Instead, she’ll make a trip to Giant Eagle, which is 3 miles away, or to Kuhn’s, which is 1.5 miles away. Neither is in walking distance. The farmer’s market on Thursdays has fresh produce and especially fresh fruit, but it’s much more expensive. Items like coffee, as well, she’ll buy at Walmart for far less than she can get it at Las Palmas.

“It’s like, wow, that’s expensive,” Ms. Rea said. “I guess because it’s the only one here in Beechview, that’s why I believe it’s getting a little bit expensive.”

Gabe Rosenberg, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summer intern, is a senior at Wesleyan University.

Education key in stretching food

Elaine Price of Hazelwood has a car now. When she needs to buy food or other essentials, she drives to the Giant Eagle in Greenfield.

When she came to Hazelwood 20 years ago without a car, grocery shopping wasn’t so easy. First, she had to catch the 56 or 57 Port Authority bus down to the 10th Street Bridge. Then she took the 51 over to 22nd Street and Carson and walked the rest of the way to the South Side Giant Eagle on Wharton Street. On the way back, she took a jitney. The whole routine took about 3 hours. She completed it every other Saturday, all with her daughter in tow.

Because she had two weeks in between each shopping excursion, she learned how to prevent food from spoiling. Instead of a whole head of lettuce, she bought a bag. It was more expensive, but she and her daughter would be able to consume it in two weeks. She bought instant instead of fresh vegetables because the bags kept them from spoiling. She froze milk, so it would last two weeks. She learned to buy smaller portions of perishables and bulk portions of non-perishables. When sugar costs $1.99 for a 5-pound bag, she’ll buy six bags and store them.

Going to the grocery store and back took three hours.

“When sugar at Thanksgiving is up to $4 a bag, I don’t have to buy it,” said Ms. Price, 58. She learned that from a woman who mentored her in what she calls “food desert living” when she was working at United Way her first years in Hazelwood. The woman’s main lesson: “If the product is something you use, and you know you’re going to use it in six months, then buy six months in one time.”

Even with her car now, she still uses those techniques, including the freezing, even though she could go to the Giant Eagle every day if she needed to. The practices have become ingrained, and she sees other people in Hazelwood using them.

She thinks a significant number of Hazelwood residents don’t own a car. Those in Hazelwood Towers, a partially HUD-subsidized senior living high rise, have to use those techniques even more, she said.

“Education is part of living in a food desert,” she said.

Hannah Schwarz, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summer intern, is a senior at Yale University.

Food deserts embrace urban farms

In three Pittsburgh neighborhoods with varying access to supermarkets — Hazelwood, Garfield and Lawrenceville — three groups embrace different models of urban agriculture to help the neighborhoods eat healthfully. And they’re seeing varying degrees of success.

In Hazelwood, Flowers Avenue does not live up to its name. Halfway up the neighborhood thoroughfare is a fenced-in plot that looks to be a garden, but closer inspection shows that weeds are crowding out what neighbors say was once a maintained space. To the left of the fence, partially covered by vines, is a faded wooden sign that reads, “Hazelwood Urban Garden.”

Referred to as HUGS for short, the organization founded this and several other gardens throughout Hazelwood in an effort to combat the neighborhood’s lack of fresh and nutritious food. But according to Jim McCue, the steward of “Everybody’s Garden” in Hazelwood, and an advocate for urban gardening, the organization later disbanded due to internal conflict. Former members of the board for HUGS did not return calls.

Hazelwood historically struggles to support urban agriculture infrastructure, even though there are still community garden spaces throughout Hazelwood tended by locals, such as Mr. McCue’s garden at the corner of Lytle and West Elizabeth streets, and new efforts are popping up every day. They include Dylamato’s market farm stand at the corner of Hazelwood and Second avenues, which Dianne Shenk started last year, as well as the Hazelwood Food Forest, which is reestablishing itself after being displaced last summer, and Hazelwood Urban Farms, which took root several years ago.

Dylamato's Market has been joined by other food-related businesses on the main street running through Hazelwood. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

“It can be a lot of work to organize a community garden and it can be draining on the organizers,” said Marisa Manheim, director of community projects for Grow Pittsburgh.

“There’s the people side of things and there’s the plant and infrastructure side of things. Good group communication can do so much to avoid any conflicts that can really derail gardens,” she said.

At Garfield Community Farm, volunteers also have to navigate this balance.

“When we started this project we asked ourselves, “Do we want to start a community garden?” John Creasy said as he walked among rows of squash, cucumbers and beans toward a large trellis holding up hop plants.

“And the answer,” he continued, reaching over to open the door to the 20x40 ft bio shelter, “was no. We wanted to start a community farm.”

Volunteer Scott Hagley of Highland Park clears some yard waste at the Garfield Community Farm. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

Mr. Creasy, 38, of Stanton Heights and a pastor at the Open Door Church, is also the director of the thriving Garfield Community Farm on the hill at Cornwall and Wicklow streets.

In 2008, Mr. Creasy and a group of volunteers were concerned by lack of fresh produce in the Garfield area. With no background in agriculture they began going door to door to gauge the community's interest in an urban gardening effort.

Today, the farm covers three city blocks or square 2.5 acres of land, where dozens of varieties of berry shrubs, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs grow. It has a combined yearly output of approximately 2,500 pounds of produce.

John Creasy of Stanton Heights, farm director for the Garfield Community Farm, works the soil of the farm. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

“There are, I’m sure, better places in the city of Pittsburgh to start a farm,” he said, “but we’re growing here because there was a need. There’s very little access to food without a car or a bus, and there’s little to no public transportation up here.”

In the years since the farm was established, Mr. Creasy and his volunteers have established several channels of distribution for the home-grown produce. They host a weekly farmers market at the Valley View Presbyterian Church, where nearly everything is sold below market rate.

They also have a 15-member community supported agriculture program (CSA), for which members can pay market rate or a reduced rate depending on need; use WIC stamps or participate in a work share at the garden.

Any excess that the garden produces is donated to the Valley View Presbyterian church food pantry where Garfield and East Liberty meet.

Things that are not in high demand, such as micro greens and hops, are sold to local restaurants and breweries, including the East End Brewing Company in Larimer.

“We’re working on having a healthy model of earned income, individual donations and church and grant money,” Mr. Creasy said.

But while their food production and distribution systems are seeing success, with an estimated 100 people per week eating food from the farm, community involvement in the farm is still lacking.

“It’s easy to get the food to people,” Mr. Creasy said. “It’s hard to develop the kind of ownership that we had hoped for in terms of volunteer labor at the farm, but we’re making strides in the direction.”

One way that they’re doing this is by teaching people how to garden.

“By being in the middle of a food desert, we’re able to do a lot of education work,” Mr. Creasy said. “That’s actually about half of what we do; we want the farm to be a classroom.”

Kids are integral to their work. “Kids change habits in their families and what students learn when they’re young is what they practice when they’re older,” said Maria Bowman, program manager of Grow Pittsburgh’s Edible Schoolyard initiative, a program that integrates lesson about food and agriculture into the curricula of elementary schools throughout the city.

"It's easy to get food to the people," Mr. Creasy said. "It's hard to develop the kind of ownership that we had hoped for ... ."

This is why the second garden in Lawrenceville on McCandless Avenue is primarily a learning space, according to Deirdre Kane, director of Lawrenceville's Community Gardens. “We wanted to use it as an opportunity to teach kids where food comes from,” she said.

Lawrenceville’s first community garden in Allegheny Cemetery began as a giveback project from Allegheny Valley Bank. When Lawrenceville United began supporting the project, Ms. Kane got involved.

Since then, she and a dedicated staff of about seven volunteers have built upon that initial garden, receiving support from Grow Pittsburgh, Just Harvest and programs started by former mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

While Lawrenceville, like Garfield, hosts weekly work sessions at its garden, those who help each week gets to take home any of the produce that is ready to be harvested.

The output is a few hundred pounds per year but that apparently is enough for the approximately 20 families that eat food from the garden each week.

Organizers also save food each week to take to elderly people in the area.

Any excess produce is sold at the 52nd Street Market, where the revenue is used to sustain the garden.

“It would help tremendously if each neighborhood had their own one to two community gardens,” Ms. Kane said.

“It would not only give people access to fresher produce, but it’s also a great source of community building and can really impact these communities in a positive way.”

Katerina Sarandou, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summer intern, is a senior at Chatham University.

Growing your own food will help fill a pantry

For the 47 percent of Pittsburgh residents who live in what are classified as food deserts, fresh radishes, melons and zucchini might seem like a luxury. With grocery stores so far away, and canned or frozen vegetables lasting longer than the fresh alternative, many may have given up on having a fresh salad or grilled eggplant with dinner.

But having a home garden is a way to get around this obstacle. And it is possible with little or no yard space.

Start with herbs

Herbs such as basil, mint and parsley are good plants to start with for inexperienced gardeners. Though they prefer sunlight and should be watered regularly, herbs will grow in shade and are hearty enough that they will be able to withstand a missed day or two of watering.

“It’s also nice because people can use them really easily. You don’t have to build a whole dish around an herb. You can just throw a sprig of parsley in whatever you’re making,” said Bob Madden, the outreach manager of Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery in Wilkinsburg.

Bob Madden, outreach manager of Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery in Wilkinsburg, pulls a cart of seedlings to put in the greenhouse. Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette

Herbs can be put in a small pot and left on a windowsill in a kitchen so they can be picked fresh and added to dishes.

Plant in pots

Growing food is possible for those who don’t have yards. Travis Leivo of Shadyside Nursery explained that he started his vegetable garden in five-gallon buckets on his fire escape. He said that peppers, eggplant, bush beans and lettuce can grow well in planters.

“You wouldn’t want to plant a big sprawling tomato plant on your fire escape, but you can get the patio variety,” Mr. Leivo said, “That’s a tomato plant that is designed not to grow like a vine. It grows more like a bush.”

Another option is to use wall or fence space. Some vine plants like melons, tomatoes or pole beans can be trellised so they grow upward instead of sprawling across the ground.

When creating a vertical garden, you have to be aware of things like space, sunlight and drainage just as you would with a horizontal garden.

“When you plant things in the ground there’s natural drainage,” Mr. Leivo said. “When you make a vertical garden whether it’s a shelf or a shoe rack that you put dirt in, you always have to have a place for the water to drain out or else it gets really funky.”

Check your resources

Sometimes a space seems perfect for a garden, but if it doesn’t get enough sun, plants won’t be able to grow to their full potential.

“You definitely want to have a south-facing window,” Mr. Leivo advised, “Anything that’s looking south is going to have the most sunlight.”

Having fencing also is helpful to protect your plants from animals that may eat the vegetables before they are ready to harvest.

Sometimes a space seems perfect for a garden, but if it doesn't get enough sun, plants won't grow to their full potential.

“Around here rabbits are really a big terror. They come back until there’s nothing left whereas groundhogs kind of like stop by, take a snack and leave,” said Mr. Madden of Garden Dreams.

Finally, it is important to plan out the garden to make sure there is enough space for everything to grow.

“Setting up your garden is like setting up your living room. You have to say where everything is going to go, how much space you have for how many plants, and logistical things like are you going to be able to walk around in it,” Mr. Leivo said.

Join a community of gardeners

For new gardeners, local nurseries can be an invaluable resource and wealth of growing tips and troubleshooting.

“It’s really cool to get people in [our] garden because people ask, ‘How do you grow this?’ or ‘How do you pick kale?’ And it’s so nice to be able to walk over and show them,” Mr. Madden said.

Beyond that, making friends with other gardeners in the community is also beneficial. These gardeners cannot only provide advice, but trade food that might not fit into a smaller patio garden.

“If you can only grow some radishes and some lettuce in your tiny apartment, or maybe a pepper plant, it doesn’t make you feel like you’re growing your own food,” Mr. Leivo said.

“But if you make friends with your neighbor who has a patio that’s maybe a little bigger, then you can share and you can plant maybe twice as many radishes, give them half and they give you who knows what.”

Amy Brooks, a summer intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, graduated from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.


Writing: Melissa McCart, with interns: Amy Brooks, Caelin Miltko, Jewell Porter, Gabe Rosenberg, Katerina Sarandou,
Hannah Schwarz, Amaka Uchegbu
Photography: Pam Panchak, Julia Rendleman, Dominique Hildebrand, Katelyn Jones, Larry Roberts, Lake Fong, Michael Henninger, Robin Rombach
Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman


Writing: Melissa McCart, with interns: Amy Brooks, Caelin Miltko, Jewell Porter, Gabe Rosenberg, Katerina Sarandou,
Hannah Schwarz, Amaka Uchegbu
Photography: Pam Panchak, Julia Rendleman, Dominique Hildebrand, Katelyn Jones, Larry Roberts, Lake Fong, Michael Henninger, Robin Rombach
Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman