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The Pitt News

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

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The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper

The Pitt News

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New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) shoots over Philadelphia 76ers guard Kelly Oubre Jr., rear, in red, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
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By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

Oakland as a ‘food swamp’: Students talk food accessibility and prices at Forbes Street Market

Products+on+sale+at+Forbes+Street+Market.
Pamela Smith | Contributing Editor
Products on sale at Forbes Street Market.

Forbes Street Market is one of three grocery stores in Central and South Oakland that sell produce, and the only one both on Pitt’s campus and owned by Pitt. 

Although Pitt’s Campus Master Plan includes the opening of a grocery store in Oakland, Justin Dandoy, director of community affairs, said it will take a minimum of five years before the project is realized. In the meantime, student food insecurity and accessibility remains an issue for students, with 43% of Pitt students experiencing some form of food insecurity as of 2021. 

Corey Flynn, a Pitt researcher with the Office of Sustainability in the Health Sciences said although food insecurity in Oakland is an issue for students, Oakland is not necessarily a “food desert.” 

“A food desert is when there isn’t any healthy food in a certain radius. Oakland is not a food desert, because there’s plenty of food here. But the food is expensive, and the majority of it is not healthy,” Flynn said, referring to Oakland as more of a “food swamp” than a food desert.

Forbes Street Market provides students with an option for produce within a walkable distance, however it has higher average prices than its competitors, such as Market District, Target and Trader Joe’s. 

Prices at Forbes Street Market, although competitive in some products such as bottled beverages, bananas and milk, still have higher prices than alternative grocery stores. A jar of vodka tomato sauce, for instance, is $9.69 at Forbes Street Market — however, it is only $2.99 at Giant Eagle and $2.79 at Target. 

Ana Vázquez, a junior Spanish and natural sciences major who lives in Bouquet Gardens, said she does most of her grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s and hasn’t shopped at Forbes Street Market since her first year. 

“I used to when I lived in Towers last year, but just because I didn’t have a car and I didn’t want to pay for parking,” Vázquez said. “I would shop there to get snacks and stuff, but it was never good quality food.”

Vázquez also said she didn’t think shopping at Forbes Street Market was worth the high prices, especially without dining dollars. 

“There were a lot of times when I would get blueberries or something and they would go bad or they would already be half-bad,” Vázquez said. 

Flynn, who studies student food accessibility and sustainability in Pittsburgh, said her research shows that students are averse to the processed food advertised around campus. 

“In a focus group I held, the students were telling me that with their meal plan, they wanted to go into Forbes Market and get some raspberries, but they weren’t allowed to buy fresh fruit,” Flynn said. “All the advertisements were for Pepsi, energy drinks and processed food, but they don’t want energy drinks and processed food and sugar beverages because they know it’s not good for them. But that’s what’s being advertised and pushed and marketed to them.”

Vice President of Operations with Compass Group Quintin Eason said the high prices at Forbes Street Market are due to difficulties in competing with larger businesses such as Giant Eagle and CVS, who can purchase goods in bulk. According to Eason, Forbes Street Market doesn’t have the demand for bulk purchases. 

“They buy a million pallets of X, and so they may get a 6 or 7% discount on that volume of items,” Eason said. “Some of those items we can’t get, so I had to get it from a secondary market, which carries a backup cost.”

Eason added that they try to determine the prices for Forbes Street Market by comparing prices of common groceries at the local CVS and Market District Giant Eagle and setting prices that work within the Market’s established budget. 

“We try to find that baseline pricing, median average,” Eason said. “Some items are a little bit higher, some items are lower. We’re in the average for some of those products that we offer.”

Eason said despite the high student demand for Forbes Street Market, they don’t make a profit off of the money spent there, and the market is always either breaking even or operating at a loss. 

“The market was designed to be a convenience for the student body, and so we’re trying not to operate at a loss,” Eason said. 

Senior computer science major Ailee Cash, who lives off campus and does not have a car, said she prefers Trader Joe’s and Target to Forbes Street Market, but the total shopping excursion to and from East Liberty normally takes her three hours. 

“I try to go once a week, but I usually don’t make it. It’s usually every other week realistically, because I just get too busy with classes and schoolwork and other things like activities,” Cash said. “It’s a bus ride over there and a bus ride back and you can only carry so much yourself, so it’s inconvenient.”

Cash added that she only shops at Forbes Street Market when she is “desperate” due to the high prices. 

Flynn said her daughter, who is a Pitt student, has to set aside half a day to shop for groceries at Trader Joe’s. 

“The bus line stops a little bit from Trader Joe’s. It’s a long walk, and then she can’t purchase as much food as she would like, because she needs to get it back to the bus, carry it on the bus and then get back to her dorm that’s at the top of the hill,” Flynn said.

On March 21, Student Government Board hosted a town hall where students voiced concern about the high prices at Forbes Street Market and the lack of transportation to grocery stores outside of Oakland. Pitt is now in the process of addressing student suggestions for better food accessibility on and off campus. 

SGB Board Member Katie Emmert, who organized the town hall, said the University has to improve communication and collaboration with students and expand on ways students can become more involved in food accessibility at a higher administrative level.”

Emmert said her main takeaways from the town hall were the need for student input, especially concerning meal swaps and transportation to grocery stores. 

Assistant Vice Chancellor for Auxiliary Services Julie Bannister, who attended the student town hall as a representative for Pitt’s dining services, said she plans on addressing student feedback as soon as she is able.

“I’ve had a whole long list of notes I took out from the town hall and already have met with [Pitt’s] marketing director,” Bannister said. “The biggest takeaway from me was just the need for communication and accessibility to [groceries].”

Bannister said Pitt has already implemented several food accessibility initiatives, such as the acceptance of SNAP benefits at Forbes Street Market and the ability for students to donate a meal swipe at the end of the semester. It is unclear how many students qualify and use SNAP benefits on campus. 

Bannister also said Pitt is looking to provide meals during major holidays for students who stay on campus or are unable to see their families.

“We had our Thanksgiving meal the day before Thanksgiving,” Bannister said. “We’re looking to continue to grow that and then also developing a program that we weren’t able to launch this year, but really developing a program over the winter break of how we get food to students that may be here.”

Flynn said although student access to transportation and affordable food is important, there are still many other issues that need to be addressed before student food insecurity is no longer an issue on Pitt’s campus. 

“Processed food is plentiful here, and it’s very cheap,” Flynn said. “It’s advertised specifically to students, and research shows that processed food has a negative impact on our health and a negative impact on the climate and on the planet.”

Flynn added that while some students have excess dining dollars at the end of the semester, others are just as likely to run out and become food insecure as a result. 

“Dining dollars run out,” Flynn said. “It’s in my experience that they’re not going to cover the Forbes Street Market prices [all] semester, no matter how many dining dollars you get.”

Flynn offered several ways that the University can continue to support food insecure students, such as better outreach to said students or allowing students to donate more than one meal swipe at the end of the semester. 

“I would like to see [extra meal plan money] go into a bucket for students so that they can get more than one free swipe or more than five free swipes that could fund a student’s meal plan who can’t afford a meal plan,” Flynn said, referencing Biden’s recent statement regarding unused meal plan funds on college campuses

Flynn said she is working with Pitt to jumpstart a food education program for Pitt students this upcoming summer term, where students can learn grocery shopping, food storage and cooking techniques that aim to reduce food waste on campus. 

Bannister also said Pitt will work to better advertise their resources on campus, such as Plant2Plate, the Pitt Pantry and several classes that educate students on college nutrition. 

“Every American deserves to have healthy food that’s culturally appropriate and is affordable,” Flynn said. “I just think right now, that’s not what we have here in Oakland for our students.”



About the Contributor
Abby Lipold, Assistant News Editor
Abby Lipold is the Assistant News Editor for the News Desk. She is an English Nonfiction Writing major and is pursuing a BPhil in International and Area Studies. She has been writing for The Pitt News since January 2022. You can contact Abby at [email protected].