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Advocates Look for New Ways to Fill City 'Food Deserts'

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Advocates Look for New Ways to Fill City 'Food Deserts'
Clinton Bailey Farmers Market
Shoppers look at produce at the Clinton Bailey Farmers Market in Buffalo, N.Y. The city could serve as the model for a new, collaborative approach to grocery access that favors a network of community-led projects.
Derek Gee Buffalo News

BUFFALO, N.Y. — For six years, Alexander Wright lobbied local politicians, foundations and investors to fund his vision for a grocery store on Buffalo’s East Side. The African Heritage Food Co-Op, he promised, would make affordable, healthy produce accessible in a neighborhood with few convenient options besides dollar and corner stores.

The Buffalo Bills Foundation kicked in $50,000. Donations ticked up during the pandemic and after the 2020 racial justice protests. But it wasn’t until a White supremacist killed 10 Black shoppers at one of the East Side’s few full-service markets that Wright finally secured the $3 million he needed to break ground on the project.

“I hate that it had to take this,” said Wright, a former nonprofit director. “But now we want to do this so perfectly that it shows what front-line communities can do when we have the resources.”

The attack at the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue, which left several Buffalo neighborhoods without a convenient source of fresh food, made the city a national emblem for the plight of urban food deserts. The term, which some researchers have discarded in favor of “food apartheid” or “low-access” areas, generally describes the nation's thousands of low-income census tracts where an estimated 53.6 million people live outside an easy walk or drive to a full-service supermarket.

Much of Buffalo meets that definition, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the three months since the attack, a broad network of local advocates, organizers and social entrepreneurs — plus public and private funders, including the USDA and the state of New York — have accelerated efforts to improve food access in disinvested neighborhoods.

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On a recent sultry summer afternoon, 81-year-old widow Nellie Allen sits on the porch of her one-story brick home, one in a strip of government-subsidized houses surrounded by fields and country roads in Hackleburg, Alabama.

Among other planned projects, the owner of an urban farm off Jefferson Avenue is fundraising to open a $7 million wellness center, with greenhouses and clinic space. A faith-based development group obtained four vacant lots and announced plans to open a neighborhood grocery. Nonprofit organizations and businesses have received grants and other support to plant vegetable gardens, subsidize fresh produce purchases and install health-screening stations.

No American city has yet bested the stubborn problem of low grocery access, several policy experts said. But as unprecedented funding and attention flow to the East Side — and as communities across the country re-evaluate their strategies for addressing food-access gaps — Buffalo could serve as the model for a new, collaborative approach that favors a network of community-led projects over one-off public investments.

“There needs to be long-term investment in community-led solutions, education and relationship-building,” said Rebekah Williams, the founder of the Buffalo Food Equity Network, which convenes food advocates and organizers of color. “We can’t just keep throwing money at Band-Aid solutions.”

New Momentum for Community Projects

Most American cities have a section like Buffalo’s East Side. During the industrial era, smoke and other industrial pollutants blowing west to east — the typical direction of prevailing winds — polluted many cities’ east sides and pushed people of means to other areas. Much later, commercial redlining and waves of White flight further sapped these neighborhoods of resources, including grocery stores.

In Buffalo and across the country, disparities in grocery store access are highly racialized. An analysis by the Reinvestment Fund, which administers the federal government’s primary grocery access program, found that 18% of predominantly Black neighborhoods in large metro areas had limited supermarket access compared with 8% of predominantly White ones.

That doesn’t mean there’s nowhere to shop or eat on Buffalo’s East Side, community advocates emphasize. On a recent Saturday morning, while the African Heritage Food Co-Op held a public meeting at a Jefferson Avenue community center, vendors selling chicken wings, baked beans and yellow watermelons set up tents on the sidewalk outside. Raised garden beds dot several of the surrounding blocks, the work of nonprofit organizations rejuvenating vacant lots and empowering people to grow their own food. A corner store up the street sells a dozen types of salads, in addition to the doughnuts and pizza.

But rates of food insecurity, poor nutrition and disease remain high in East Side neighborhoods. More than half of households in several census tracts receive federal food benefits, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Residents in more than a quarter of Buffalo households don’t own a car — a figure that may be higher among food-insecure people, survey data from the University at Buffalo suggests. Busing from the Jefferson Avenue Tops to the chain’s next-closest location requires a line transfer and takes 40 minutes.

“In the area there is nothing around, nothing,” said Ahmed Saleh, the owner of Mandella Market on Jefferson. “It looks like a ghost town.”

Buffalo food advocates say they don’t just want to build new stores — a conventional policy approach that, over the past five to 10 years, has proved ineffective, researchers said. Instead, they hope to build out a network of community food “assets,” from corner gardens and food pantries to full-blown supermarkets, which create lasting neighborhood wealth and give residents multiple ways to obtain fresh produce and other items.

Some initiatives are small in scope. In May and June, the Buffalo Together Community Response Fund, a group of local donors, granted $635,000 to 85 Black-led organizations, including a food pantry, a grocery delivery service and a community group that helps residents grow their own fruits and vegetables. At five East Side markets, the nonprofit Field & Food Network has temporarily expanded a state-funded program called Double Up Food Bucks, which helps low-income shoppers stretch their budgets to include more produce.

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In July, the Healthy Community Store Initiative — a six-year-old program that promotes healthier products, including fresh produce, at Buffalo corner stores — announced that a partnership with the American College of Cardiology would fund mini-wellness centers at three locations, including Saleh’s Mandella Market on Jefferson.

“Grocery stores, gardens, mobile markets, farmers markets — we need all of the above,” said Sheila Bass, who coordinates the program.

Larger projects also are underway. On June 14, a faith-based development group announced it had bought four vacant parcels from the city of Buffalo and a local church, with plans to build a new market.

Farther east, Allison DeHonney — the CEO of the East Side farming business Urban Fruits & Veggies and its nonprofit arm, Buffalo Go Green — hopes to break ground next year on a wellness center that will house a greenhouse, health clinic and community space.

A third initiative, currently awaiting city development funds, would convert a vacant city-owned building near the Erie County Medical Center into a hydroponic farm and low-cost farmers market called Project Rainfall.

“We want to create an environment that will provide healthy food for the community, but also build community wealth,” said founder Rita Hubbard-Robinson, a former director at Erie County Medical Center. She began pursuing food advocacy work after noticing the hospital’s large numbers of young diabetes patients.

But the East Side’s marquee food project is still the African Heritage Food Co-Op, which in June received a $3 million investment from New York’s Empire State Development agency and $200,000 from USDA’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The funds will allow Wright to begin construction on the co-op’s future brick-and-mortar home: a fire-damaged historic building in the East Side’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, which served as a grocery store and deli for most of its 146 years.

Ahmed Saleh, owner of Mandella Market
Ahmed Saleh, the owner of Mandella Market on Jefferson in Buffalo, N.Y.
Derek Gee Buffalo News

Architectural renderings of the new space envision an airy, two-story market with community rooms, a year-round greenhouse and a grab-and-go cafe. Wright said he hopes business from the nearby Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, long criticized as a source of gentrification and displacement, will subsidize the endeavor’s less profitable ambitions, such as providing all employees with a living wage, homebuyer education classes and tuition reimbursement. Co-op members also will be invited to reinvest their annual dividends into a grant fund for local Black-owned businesses.

“We want people to know this is a community effort — this is our store, this is where it’s going,” Wright said. “A lot of people need to see that, especially in the demographic we serve. They’ve been used and abused and disheartened.”

Rethinking ‘Food Deserts’

In some ways, the Buffalo approach represents a break from conventional interventions in low-food access areas, which in the past have focused on large corporate retail. Since roughly 2008, many municipalities have deployed tax breaks, zoning changes and other development incentives to attract grocery stores to neighborhoods without them, said Craig Willingham, the director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. The Jefferson Avenue Tops, which opened in 2003 after years of lobbying from nearby residents, received more than $5 million in public loans and grants. Public officials at the time heralded the grocery store's opening as the “the beginning of the East Side's comeback.”

Research on these interventions has shown, however, that new stores have little direct impact on the shopping habits of nearby residents. People rarely shop at the supermarket closest to their homes, even if their incomes are limited, said Caroline George, a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution.

Budget and personal preference also influence diet quality far more than easy access to fruits and vegetables. One 2020 research review, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, concluded that building new grocery stores may improve food security in underserved neighborhoods — but it doesn’t affect nutrition.

“The main thing we’ve learned in the past five to 10 years is that just building a grocery store is not a one-size-fits-all solution to community access needs,” said Laine Cidlowski, the food system administrator for the city of Denver. 

Instead, researchers and policymakers have increasingly embraced a web of interventions that grow resident purchasing power, foster community ownership and improve public infrastructure that contributes to food access, such as public transit and broadband networks. Much of that work takes place at the federal level. Under the Biden administration, the USDA permanently increased benefit levels in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and expanded an online grocery shopping pilot to include roughly 3 million new households.

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The federal program had been shrinking for almost two decades.

More than 300 cities also have adopted local food councils in recent years, said Anne Palmer, a researcher and program director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and roughly two dozen have appointed a food policy director to local government. Some of those cities are now experimenting with their own new approaches to affordability, nutrition and disinvestment, from raising the minimum wage to transferring vacant land to Black farmers and growers who want it.

Among other initiatives, advocates and city officials in Asheville, North Carolina, has discussed making reparations to Black residents to address the food security and access gaps caused by urban renewal. In Kansas City, members of the Greater KC Food Policy Coalition interviewed hundreds of grocery shoppers who travel by bus and recommended changes to make their trips easier, down to specific signage that now appears at bus stops.

“There are different approaches, different programmatic initiatives, that are happening all over the country — and we’ve seen some successes,” Willingham said. “But I don't think that there's been a sort of silver bullet in terms of ‘this is the one thing’ or ‘the combination of things’ that work yet.”

On Buffalo’s East Side, shoppers are trickling back to the Jefferson Avenue Tops. But today, residents want to see far more progress than the expanded produce section the chain advertised at its reopening, said Della Miller, a nutrition educator and long-time community advocate. In the 1990s, Miller volunteered with a group of residents and local church leaders who fought to bring a grocery store to the East Side. Since then, however — disappointed by the store’s small footprint — she’s visited Tops only five times.

Miller said she believes that residents were so relieved to see a supermarket open on Jefferson Avenue that they “would have taken anything” at all.

But the May 14 massacre convinced everyone, said Project Rainfall’s Hubbard-Robinson, that addressing food access gaps on the East Side will take more than one store.

“Alex Wright’s store is really important. The work that Allison DeHonney is doing is really important,” she said. “The mobile markets, the pantries, the community gardens, all of these things — they are, together, the only way we can have an impact on the food apartheid that’s been going on for decades.”

This story was reported and written in collaboration with The Buffalo News.

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