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Natural Foods Merchandiser

'Mayor of Hell' addresses Braddock, Penn.'s food desert

“Mayor of Hell” John Fetterman on why Whole Foods won’t help save his city—but healthy eating could. Fetterman will speak at Natural Products Expo East on Friday, Sept. 23 at 3-4 p.m. in room 308.

Q: You’ve been mayor of Braddock, the poorest town in Pennsylvania, since 2005. What have you accomplished since then?

A: I am most proud of, and grateful for, the elimination of homicide in Braddock. We have not had a murder in more than three years. We’ve also saved dozens of buildings and homes from abandonment or demolition. We just completed a community center for young people, and we’ve put in two new playgrounds and two outdoor basketball courts. We also have a 2-acre urban farm that provides organic produce for residents as well as for Pittsburgh-area restaurants.

Q: Why should natural products retailers care about the type of work you’re doing in Braddock?

A: Braddock, which used to be an incredibly prosperous town, is a cautionary tale of what can happen to a region that’s allowed to fail. It also demonstrates that no matter how bad something has become, there’s always hope. Nobody ever thought we could grow acres of organic produce in the shadow of a steel mill and in a community that most people have written off.

Q: You have your organic garden, but is Braddock still a food desert?

A: It absolutely is—we don’t have a grocery store or any kind of restaurant. We lack many of the local resources necessary to lead a healthier lifestyle. Our hospital is now closed, so we don’t even have access to basic health care.

Q: Is healthy eating affordable for Braddock citizens?

A: Absolutely not. It’s not affordable, and it’s also difficult when you live in an oppressed environment. There are a lot of foods that aren’t healthy but are easily accessible and relied upon to provide comfort. Here, after a rough day of working for minimum wage, when you get home, all you want to do is watch TV, eat Doritos and drink soda. So there are many challenges beyond access that keep people in communities like Braddock from a healthy lifestyle. Until you live in a community that faces these challenges, it’s really hard to get a grasp on the barriers to healthy eating. Dropping a Whole Foods in the middle of town isn’t going to solve our problems.

Q: How do you give people hope that one person really can make a difference against the types of problems you face in Braddock?

A: I kind of shy away from being the person who says, “Hey, you can make a difference.

Q: But you’ve been able to make a difference, right?

A: I have been fortunate enough to find a place where I can contribute and have been able to produce results. I’m just a guy who got lucky. One person can make a difference, but I don’t like to be the one to remind somebody of that.


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