Advocates look for new ways to fill city ‘food deserts’ | Analysis
An estimated 53.6M people live outside an easy walk or drive to a full-service grocery store
By Caitlin Dewey
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.
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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