Margie Stanislaw-(front row 2nd from left) and some of the Getting Ahead Investigators who spearheaded fresh food for Jeannette. Margie is an employee of the Westmoreland County Juvenile Probation Department and a freelance writer for TribTotalMedia.

By Margie Stanislaw

The 2011 Graduating Class of Getting Ahead, the third class that our Circles Initiative had sponsored, was very concerned with two major issues affecting their neighborhood: the closing down of the laundromat and the only local supermarket. This class became even more concerned when the USDA declared our city of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, a “food desert.”

The Investigators persevered through the ups and downs of group process, but the Community Assessment became a catalyst for the group to tackle the two community issues. The Investigators wanted to find a way to open a laundromat and employ themselves. Through my facilitation, they had learned about projects like “Cleveland Going Green” and their social enterprise re-entry projects which had given ex-criminal offenders the ability to own and operate a successful green, full-scale commercial laundry facility that was serving all the institutions on University Row. The Investigators also wanted to entice a supermarket back into the city limits. As food was a priority, and it could cost as much as $25 for a round trip taxi ride to Wal-Mart, the Investigators began taking a hard look at the grocery retailers. They had some bridging capital through a Circle volunteer who did accounting work for grocery retailers and the leaders just started making phone calls. They also devised an online market survey to outline the community’s shopping needs and further decided that as food was an immediate need, they would try to develop a community garden and a farm market to get fresh produce into the community for the summer months. By this point, the next class of Getting Ahead had also joined in these efforts.

I assisted in writing a grant to a local foundation who readily gave the Investigator start-up funds for the garden and the market. The Investigators held community meetings to get input from residents and to listen to their concerns as well. As summer progressed, the garden was very fruitful, and the market had a modicum of success. The group, through their hard work, raised enough money to be self-sufficient for the following year’s garden and market. Work is still progressing on the grocery store. A major retailer has been in touch with the group, reviewed their survey, added input and currently is searching for property. The biggest barrier at the present time is that there does not seem to be an available parcel of land within the city limits. Concerning the laundromat business, it was announced in September that a large foundation has made a commitment to help with the construction of a building that will house a laundromat, a greenhouse, a community kitchen, and meeting space for the initiative. The Investigators are still meeting weekly and working hard on these projects, as well as their personal plans. One of the group leaders recently became an employee of our initiative with her personal goal being to obtain employment that would put her “on the books.”

When asked about his experiences with the farm market, Manager Clyde Bittner has told community members, “Don’t give up. No matter how negative the responses are that you get from some people—you know you are doing the right thing…just don’t give up. It is a lot of work, I made a lot of calls and some vendors wouldn’t even call me back, but as a group we just kept on going, and it worked!” Overall, the leaders and the volunteers have all learned that any process in the community is going to be slow. All the factors that led up to the current community situation didn’t happen overnight and the solutions won’t be overnight either.