Opinion | The bird flu crisis reminds us that Pitt needs a real grocery store

By Paul Beer, Staff Columnist

Prices of poultry and eggs are skyrocketing due to what is described as, “the worst avian-influenza outbreak in U.S. history.” While U.S. customers are used to price increases as a result of recent inflation issues, Pitt students without a car are starting to feel the worst of the egg crisis. 

Limited supplies and price gouging have led to — from my most recent trip to Forbes Street Market — a dozen eggs costing $8.29, almost double the national average and more than Pennsylvania’s minimum wage. Meanwhile, at Giant Eagle, a dozen eggs is going for $4.69. With price differences like these, it is necessary that we question the degree to which Pitt accommodates for its poorest students. 

It’s not news to anyone that the neighborhood of Oakland is a food desert — meaning it is difficult for residents to find affordable or healthy food without having to travel long distances. With no true grocery store, just a few convenience stores and mini-grocery stores like Forbes Street Market, Pitt students on a budget are left to deal with the ridiculous prices and a limited selection. 

While Forbes Street Market looks like a typical independent grocer from the outset, it’s actually owned by Pitt and managed by their food service provider Compass Group. Compass also manages the Eatery and The Perch in Sutherland, alongside the convenience stores in Sutherland and Towers. If you don’t have an exorbitantly priced meal plan, these are your main options as a Pitt student without a car. 

The closest true grocery stores are an ALDI and a Giant Eagle in the Southside, which are 1.9 and 1.6 miles away from West Oakland. There’s also the Shadyside Market District, a bigger version of Giant Eagle, which is 2.3 miles away. Each of these stores is about a 10 minute drive, and an even longer bus ride from campus.

Due to the large swaths of land that Pitt owns in Oakland, any other grocer likely has to buy out land that Pitt already owns. The only other potential options are off campus and small, including Las Palmas on Atwood and Groceria Merante on Bates. These are similar convenience-style grocers to Forbes Street Market in size and selection, but are much more affordable for students on a budget. 

Prices of eggs at Pitt-owned locations being near double the national average calls into question the contract between Compass and Pitt. But this contract is not public information — why would it be? Pitt’s past dealings with their food provider have spurred lawsuits, including one that alleges that Pitt asked Sodexo to order more food for the campus before its COVID-19 closure of the campus, which resulted in unnecessary net losses for its previous food provider. 

Pitt students should demand to see what agreements are in place in terms of price increases, especially now. Past critics have noted that Forbes Street Market already hikes up their prices and refuses to stock basic grocery essentials. But in a time of economic uncertainty, students deserve answers. No student’s first grocery trips as an adult living on their own should cost hundreds of dollars and leave them without enough food to stay healthy. Or worse, they must take the bus to the nearest grocer only to buy what they can hold in their hands. 

And what about the students who are still struggling to pay for food? It’s undoubtedly Pitt’s problem that a neighborhood they essentially own lacks a real grocery store. With thousands of students owning meal plans and four months of guaranteed losses in the summer, what grocer would willingly leave their profits up to chance by landing in Oakland? Recently, widespread renter company Walnut Capital has noted that rising costs are preventing them from opening the planned Oakland Crossings, a combination grocer and housing plan in a formerly Pitt-owned building. 

If any of these problems have affected you, and you’re concerned about the prices of your meals or where they’re coming from next, there are a few options. The Pitt Pantry remains open to students in the spring semester, albeit only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Using this service alone likely is not enough, especially for those looking for fresh produce, but a few pantry staples always help. There are also other food banks nearby for students who have transportation, but limited funds. Enrolling in SNAP for College Students is also another viable option. 

These options do not come without stigma, though. The Food Research and Action Center noted that, even before COVID-19, there existed a stigma about using government assistance for food. People think as though they are undeserving of the help they clearly need, and this is often the biggest roadblock in keeping themselves well-fed. Always remember — if you qualify for aid, you deserve it. Even in college, we’re all still trying to impress the people around us, but putting yourself first — especially when it comes to food — is the most important thing you can do to improve your situation.

At the end of the day, many Pitt students are struggling to find the funds or the means to get their next meal. Meal plan prices have always been high, and Forbes Street Market has always been overpriced. The University clearly has enough money to solve the problem, but they are just spending it elsewhere.

In fact, to show students just how much they care about this pressing issue, many Pitt administrators are receiving a 4.25% salary increase

Paul Beer writes about political affairs and reads too many album reviews. Write back to him (or send music recommendations) at [email protected].