Photo courtesy fitUnited

Home-based childcare centers in Hazelwood and Homewood face significant challenges in feeding the children under their care. Both neighborhoods were identified as food deserts through a five year study commissioned by RAND Corporation in 2011: “PHRESH: Pittsburgh Hill/Homewood Research on Eating, Shopping and Health.”

In response, United Way launched the Summer Healthy Meals Food Delivery Phase I Pilot Program in 2014 through its fitUnited initiative. Last year the program brought prepared meals to the home childcare centers in Homewood. However, fitUnited found that model brought a few challenges of its own.

“The problem with delivering prepared meals is that sometimes there are issues with whether or not the kids like them or will eat them then the providers find themselves in a tough spot,” says Christine Grady, United Way’s fitUnited program director. “And the objective was really to help them overcome the issues of accessibility if they don’t have a grocery store in their own neighborhood.”

In its second year, they wanted to expand the program to serve more children while improving on last year’s model. Now fitUnited delivers fresh groceries to allow caregivers the opportunity to prepare healthy meals themselves, yielding better results. Fresh produce, fruit, vegetables and dry goods are provided along with a menu to follow to help give each caregiver nutritional guidelines in preparing a variety of meals and snacks.

fitUnited now reaches homes in Hazelwood as well, while continuing the work started last year in Homewood, delivering roughly 2,000 pounds of food per week. The amount covers two meals and a snack per day for the 127 children in both neighborhoods.

Photo courtesy United Way of Allegheny County

Grady explains that many of the providers taking care of a large number of children are older women, making the task of providing food that much more difficult otherwise.

“If you can, imagine shopping to feed twenty children in your care for a whole week and buying those groceries on your own when you don’t have a grocery store and your mobility not being what it was 40 years ago,” she says.

Through fitUnited’s program, five days’ worth of healthy meals and snacks are delivered directly to the child care providers by Grady, her program manager and an intern, easing the administrative and logistical burden placed on care givers while providing 10,000 meals and 5,000 snacks throughout the summer.

The reaction of the caregivers? “The impact on them has been amazing and they absolutely love it,” says Grady.

Another program objective is to deliver a surplus of food for children to take home on the weekend.

fitUnited can buy food in bulk much more cheaply and in large quantities so there’s extra food at the end of the week.
“Providers have been able to share the extra food with the children and their families to continue eating healthy on weekends,” says Grady.

Photo courtesy United Way of Allegheny County
Photo courtesy United Way of Allegheny County

Multiple local partners have made this initiative possible including Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), and Eat’n Park Hospitality Group. Funding has been provided by Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, Heinz Endowments and the Grable Foundation.

At the program’s end in August, Grady and her team plan to share their findings with the USDA in the hopes of being able to fund a longer term project.

“We want to prove that this is a sustainable, long-term model.”

Ian Mikrut is a writer, proud Pittsburgh native and Grove City grad. When he's not at local concerts or trying in vain to improve his golf game, you might find him at DeLuca's in the Strip.