This is the last of four stories examining food deserts in the Pittsburgh region.
Clairton has been one of Green Grocer’s stops since the beginning.
The city of nearly 7,000 people that’s south of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela remains one of the most popular stops for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s mobile farmers market, which started in 2015.
On an especially hot Wednesday this summer, sales were slightly down, but a steady stream of customers still showed up. As food bank staff packed up, Clairton resident Amy Tabon pulled up and hopped out of her car, rushing over — “Can I get a head of lettuce?”
Staffers stopped and climbed on the truck to give her the two things she needed — a head of lettuce and one tomato. Without the Green Grocer, Tabon said she’d have to go to Elizabeth, West Mifflin or McKeesport anytime she wanted just two pieces of produce — or even one.
For more than a decade, Clairton hasn’t had a grocery store. There have been attempts to lure a chain store and talks about the possibility, but nothing stuck.
The last one, Marraccini Super Market, was family run for decades before it was briefly an IGA, and years later, Clairton residents still reminisce about the deli counter and running into each other in the aisles to talk about updates from church or how the Clairton Bears played in their last game.
Tabon remembers Marraccini’s. She also remembers rumors about grocery stores that were coming to Clairton but never did.
For years since Marraccini’s closed, city officials tried to entice a chain store to come in — but with no success. It was an uphill battle with chains nearby. Currently, there are two dollar stores and a Rite-Aid to buy some groceries. A Speedway opened and quickly became a popular spot for residents to buy prepared foods and to serve as a gathering spot.
But none of those places offer fresh foods daily.
Enter: Produce Marketplace
That will change when Produce Marketplace, a nonprofit grocery store, opens next week at 519 St. Clair Ave., along one of Clairton’s main thoroughfares. A ribbon cutting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Oct. 26. But since the Bears have a big game that night, the first day of shopping will be Oct. 27.
The store will be filled with produce and fruit, as well as some breads, frozen meats and dairy. Dry goods will be limited — enough so shoppers can pick up everything for a meal in one trip, but not so much as to compete with the nearby dollar stores, said Josh Berman, director of community food initiatives for Economic Development South, a nonprofit that builds partnerships in various municipalities to aid community development.
The aim is to keep prices down and accept SNAP and WIC benefits. As of 2016, 30 percent of Clairton lived below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Grocery stores in nearby towns — such as Giant Eagle and Walmart — are just a handful of miles away, but without a car, the stores are accessible only by long bus trips that include walking nearly a mile. In some cases, residents spend a large portion of their budgets on expensive jitney rides just to get to the store, said Richie Ford, a Clairton city council member and deputy mayor.
While Ford still maintained that Clairton can support a chain grocery store, he said the nonprofit store is a good idea to bring fresh options to the city.
Three years ago, City Manager Howard Bednar launched a farmers market in an attempt to have fresh food in addition to Green Grocer, but without having a store. He quickly learn that finding actual farmers — and getting them to commit to coming, especially during the busy season — would be harder than he thought.
So he became the “farmer.” Bednar buys produce from food supplier Jordan Banana and sells it like a farmer would at the famers market. When residents ask where the food is from, he jokes that he grows it in the courtyard of the city building.
It’s been a numbers game, one where breaking even is a good thing.
Bednar is anxious to quit once Produce Marketplace opens, though he said repeatedly that he’s worried about the marketing and wishes store operators would have come to the farmers market to get the word out. The store’s organizers, however, said that word continues to spread and the community has been a strong advocate.
Green Grocer plans to keep going after the store opens. Angela Mallick, the food bank’s mobile markets coordinator, said she’s worked with Berman on the store, and thinks that Clairton will still support the Green Grocer stop, too.
“We’re not going to have a huge effect on each other’s customers,” she said. “We’ll keep an eye on it.”
For Madge Bristow-Norman, shopping at Green Grocer — and the coming-soon Produce Marketplace — is a way to support her community. She said she can drive to the store, but shopping at the mobile market ensures it has enough business to keep coming back for the people who need it.
Bristow-Norman, Ford and others all stressed the bond that the residents of Clairton have and the sense of family there is, boasting about community programs and the close ties among residents.
A new way to shop
The anticipation for the new store is building. As owners moved in meat coolers and produce stands this summer, they were repeatedly asked, “when?” and “how soon?”
The first weekend that the store is open, its hours will be 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 27 and noon to 3 p.m. Oct 28. From there, the hours will be:
- Monday: Closed
- Tuesday and Thursday: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Wednesday and Friday: 3 to 6 p.m.
- Saturday: 10 to 7 p.m.
- Sunday: noon to 3 p.m.
Berman said he expects those hours to adjust as shoppers show what is best for them.
Economic Development South spearheaded the idea for a nonprofit store after seeing the community and working with Just Harvest, Fourth Economy Consulting and Palo Alto Partners to complete a study to find a feasible way to address food access, Berman said.
For now, the store is supported by the Pa. Department of Community & Economic Development’s Neighborhood Partnership Program foundations, and funders including Bridgeway Capital Management. Even if the store brings in $200,000 in the first year, it will still lose money.
With just over a week until the opening, Berman said everything was on track and inspections were complete. When it comes to sales, there will be a lot to learn in the first few months to see what buyers want and what vendors have to find the right product mix, he said.
If the store eventually becomes profitable, the goal is to turn it over to an entrepreneur who could then make it their business, and EDS would replicate the model somewhere else.
Felix Fusco, a lifelong Clairton resident and avid community volunteer, is the store’s one employee. He remembers Marraccini’s. His wife Paula worked there.
So he knows the new store will be more than a place for vegetables; it will be a community spot. He’s full of plans, too, to get more people in the door — a bike share to help shoppers get their groceries home, regular food delivery to the nearby senior apartments, and free fruit for any kid that comes in after-school.
For now, the last steps are to finalize orders and keep spreading the word before shoppers can enjoy the space, Berman said.
“This is the fun part.”
Editor’s Note: This is the last of four stories examining food deserts in the Pittsburgh region. Read earlier stories here:
- Monday: Inside Pittsburgh’s food deserts, where buying milk or veggies is impossible
- Tuesday: Could an urban farm help those marooned on Pittsburgh’s Hilltop
- Wednesday: Gardens sprout in Homewood, where residents ‘decided to grow our own food’
How you can help
Here’s what local experts say is most helpful to your fellow Pittsburghers — from volunteering to donating to getting out the vote.
With your time:
- Attend a Food Policy Council meeting, which are open to the public, and get involved with one of the council’s groups.
- Drive food to local communities, most within a 15-minute drive, after downloading the 412 Food Rescue app.
- Volunteer with Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op (BUGs) by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Volunteer at Homewood’s Sankofa Village Community Garden’s work days, donate to the garden, or buy produce in the summer.
With your money:
- Attend an upcoming Harambee’s Backyard Market.
- Buy produce at small corner stores to show merchants that it’s valuable to stock those items, said Sarah Buranskas of the Food Policy Council.
- Donate money (or your time) at the food bank.
- Shop at your local farmers market.
With your vote:
- Attend a Food Policy Council event to learn from local experts about legislation like the farm bill or SNAP.
- Contact your elected representatives. “Pittsburghers need to make sure that urban agriculture is evenly distributed in black communities” by making sure they get grants for gardening projects and holding leaders accountable, said Ayanna Jones of Sankofa Village Community Garden.
- Sign up for alerts on the food bank’s website to find out when to contact your legislators.
- Vote for candidates who support equity — and have the voting record to prove it, said Helen Gerhardt of Just Harvest.
This series was supported by The Pittsburgh Pitch, a project of 100 Days in Appalachia, and the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.