Black leaders on Buffalo's East Side build markets to fight food insecurity

Black leaders on Buffalo’s East Side build markets to fight food insecurity

BUFFALO, NY – The historic Fruit Belt neighborhood on Buffalo’s east side, with its Grape, Peach and Lemon streets, was once thriving. Yet now, in place of the orchards that once gave the area its name, there are abandoned houses with broken steps and ‘no trespassing’ signs, empty plots of land overgrown and a troubling lack of grocery stores.

The East Side’s only supermarket is Tops, where a white gunman killed 10 black residents in May. While the tragedy brought national attention to this neighborhood and its status as a food wasteland, access to grocery stores with fresh produce remains an issue more than six months later, according to residents like Alex Wright.

Today, organizations like the African Heritage Food Co-op, founded by Wright, as well as groups like Buffalo’s Black Billion and Neu Water & Associates, build supermarkets, cultivate gardens and invest in the supply of fruits and vegetables. fees to residents here. Their larger goal is to create a self-sufficient community.

Alex Wright, founder of the African Heritage Food Co-Op in Buffalo.
Alex Wright is the founder of the African Heritage Food Co-op in Buffalo.AHRIE / African Heritage Food Cooperative

“This is a paid job,” Wright, 43, said in October of his future grocery store. “We want our employees to be able to go on vacation. We want them to be able to tutor their kids and get the car they can afford and put the down payment on the house they would like to have. We want them to have careers.

The problems plaguing the East Side are rooted in policies of racial segregation and redlining implemented decades ago. According to a 2018 report by the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo-based think tank, black Buffalo residents are six times more likely to live in a grocery-free zone than white residents.

The Fruit Belt neighborhood was once teeming with grocery stores, banks and other businesses, Wright said, until the increased presence of black families after the 1940s, coupled with red lines, covenants and restrictions. Other racist policies lead white families to abandon the neighborhood. Through residential segregation, black families were prevented from buying homes in affluent white suburban neighborhoods and were pressured by real estate agents to live in declining areas with devalued properties, such as the East Side. Land banking, when private or public organizations hold land for future development, has also made it difficult for black leaders to develop their communities, according to a 2021 report from the University at Buffalo.

Today, the effects of redlining — discriminatory practices that prevented black families from receiving loans to buy homes — are still visible. Many business leaders avoid building supermarkets in black communities, and there has been no significant improvement in black homeownership rates over the past 30 years, according to the report. Community members fought for years before the Tops on Jefferson Avenue were built in 2003.

Plans for a grocery store run by the African Heritage Food Co-Op in Buffalo.
Plans for a grocery store run by the African Heritage Food Co-Op in Buffalo.African Heritage Food Cooperative

“That’s why I don’t call it a food desert,” Wright said. “I call it food apartheid. You have to use that word because it was racism through and through.

Wright and other leaders are working to fight this. One organization, the Buffalo Black Billion, is led by a local pastor, Michael Chapman of St. John and Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Churches. He has invested millions in 43 blocks of the Fruit Belt over the past two decades to build more than 70 townhouses, a seniors’ family living center, a hospice and other facilities to help strengthen the neighborhood, he said.

Chapman, 70, who was born and raised on the East Side, said his organization is an “economic engine” for the neighborhood and owns 70% of Fruit Belt’s private property. The redevelopment project, called the village of St. John Gethsemane, he added, is part of his church’s mission to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and provide housing and education.

“All we do is build a footprint for the kingdom of God,” Chapman said. “So we’re not doing this for personal gain. We do this for the church, the ministry and the welfare of the community.

One of Chapman’s current projects is the High Street Market, an outdoor farmers’ market that will feature fresh fruit and vegetables. In partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension, the $800,000 project will also allow young people to plant and cultivate gardens.

Chapman plans to open its market next year, although construction has yet to begin. He and his team go to the Buffalo Common Council on December 20 to discuss it.

Volunteers with the African Heritage Food Co-Op in Buffalo.
Volunteers with the African Heritage Food Co-Op in Buffalo.African Heritage Food Cooperative

By providing healthy food, Chapman said he also wants to increase the lifespan of the community’s black residents, for whom health disparities are all too familiar.

Rita Hubbard-Robinson, 62, has lived on the East Side for nearly four decades. Hubbard-Robinson, who is currently CEO of NeuWater & Associates, said that in the 15 years she has spent studying poor health outcomes in communities like the East Side, she has dealt with residents who have developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and obesity from a lack of access to healthy food. This, she says, can lead to chronic health problems and even premature death.

From 2016 to 2018, black people in Erie County lost 5,000 more years of potential life than white people, according to the University at Buffalo’s 2021 report.

Efforts to bring fresh produce to residents of this neighborhood continued for decades before the shooting.

NeuWater & Associates replicates a 2009 project from Louisville, Kentucky called Healthy Food in a Hurry Corner Store Initiative, which works with business owners to provide healthy food options in convenience stores. Since Buffalo adopted the project in 2015, Hubbard-Robinson said 13 convenience stores have joined the program. NeuWater & Associates also partnered with Buffalo Freedom Gardens in 2019 to work with churches and other faith groups to grow food in the gardens.

She is also a volunteer coordinator for the First Fruits Food Pantry at Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church in Buffalo. The organization distributes bags of groceries, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, to residents who are “so grateful”, she said.

“He didn’t know where he was going to shop and he came to the pantry,” Hubbard-Robinson recalled of a man she once gave food to. “And we provided him with two bags…and he cried in his car.”

Like Wright and Chapman, Hubbard-Robinson hopes to create a market in her community. The initiative, called Project Rainfall, will use a 50,000 square foot building at 537 East Delavan Avenue for a farmer’s market and hydroponic garden. The project will also invite local urban producers to participate in the food hub. According to Hubbard-Robinson, the project has received $3.5 million so far and needs $6 million to complete and another $3.2 million to support the program, purchase equipment and hire staff.

Despite the challenges ahead, when Wright stands at the future site of his grocery store, he envisions a hopeful future, in part because he’s not alone.

“We have a group of people here working together,” Wright said. “So the beautiful thing is it’s like a tornado of strong individuals coming together to do great things in Buffalo.”

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