East Buffalo can be a model of food justice

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Kevin Gaughan

On a recent morning at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Landon Street in East Buffalo, the mild autumn sun warmed the sidewalk.

A recently erected sign informs passers-by that the temporary memorial to 10 black citizens who were murdered at Tops Market here has been removed. In anticipation of the coming winter, gone are the large, bright photographs of every lost life, along with the medley of brilliant blooms that seemed to embrace the corner since May 14.

But just two blocks away and a five-minute walk away, at Glenwood and Dupont, there’s an abundance of color. Beneath a canopy of radiant golden leaves – the maples and poplars being the latest to change each fall – is a corner lot, the size of half a football field, with rows of handsome wooden boxes. Raised slightly above the rocky ground, these boxes contain preserved soil, from which grow green lettuce, red tomatoes and yellow peppers. It’s an urban farm, one of the few access points for East Buffalo residents to buy fresh food.

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This sign in Jefferson and Landon also informs people that a permanent memorial to the victims of May 14 will be installed next summer. But Urban Fruits and Veggies and its owner, Allison DeHonney, who operate the nearby Urban Farm, are already honoring those lost — by increasing access to healthy produce, the very food victims were looking for when a racist shooter took their life. .

DeHonney’s work, and that of other black food justice leaders, was highlighted at a national food equity conference in Buffalo last month. The summit brought together America’s top academics and educators, as well as investment experts, to examine the “grocery store divide,” assess East Buffalo’s efforts to bridge it, and seek the capital needed to enable black entrepreneurs to resolve this chronic injustice. And in doing so, perhaps creating a model that can be replicated across America.

While designing and conducting research for the conference, I learned a number of realities – each appalling for a country as wealthy and prosperous as ours:

• More than 40 million Americans live with little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The ensuing diets, lacking a balanced diet, lead to unequal health outcomes for black citizens.

• America’s 70-year-old commitment to educating citizens about the relationship between food and health has never been fully accessible to black families and children.

• East Buffalo – home to 89,000 people, 75% of whom are black – has only one supermarket. Just across the city border, the town of Cheektowaga – population 86,000, 95% of whom are white – has eight supermarkets.

• Redlining maps from the 1950s—effectively instructions to capital holders to “invest here (suburbs) but not there (cities)”—perfectly overlay current maps of the location of the county’s 107 full-service markets. Erie: 85 in the suburbs; 21 West of Buffalo Main Street; and one in East Buffalo.

• Of the many inequities that exist in East Buffalo – access to health care, education and transportation – limited access to fresh food is perhaps the most critical because of its effect on people’s health.

At the conference, a range of national experts, many of whom were visiting our city for the first time, added to our knowledge:

• Caroline Harries, The Food Trust, Philadelphia, PA: Life expectancy in black neighborhoods in Philadelphia is 20 years shorter than that of their white counterparts – entirely attributable to diet-related illnesses. Diabetes has quadrupled among black Americans over the past 50 years, making their need for healthy, affordable foods even more imperative.

• Ken Kolb, author, “Reframing the Food Desert Debate,” Greenville SC: Food inequality reflects greater “retail inequality” in black neighborhoods causing “predatory investment,” or corporate who do business in black communities only to transfer profits to white communities.

• Jessica Kahn, McKinsey & Co., Washington, DC: 49% of black residents of Atlanta, Georgia live with little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Multigenerational wealth gaps in black communities are caused by businesses refusing to operate there, despite collective black spending estimated to soon be $1.7 trillion a year.

• David Thomas, President, Morehouse College, Atlanta, Ga: Today’s generation of students rejects the claim that nothing can be done for food equity in America, and they insist that solutions must be found.

• Rita Hubbard-Robinson, CEO, NeuWater & Associates: Black residents of East Buffalo are 310% more likely to die from a preventable diet-related disease than their white counterparts.

• Molly Hartman, The Reinvestment Fund, Philadelphia, PA: Innovative new investment models can now provide much-needed capital to black food businesses.

Our conference introduced our national guests to three East Buffalo initiatives that are closing the grocery gap. Urban Fruits and Veggies, the urban farm around the corner from Tops, wants to expand its footprint. To compete with the dozens of convenience stores boasting “Chips, Pop, Cigarettes and Donuts” on their marquees, you have to.

Alex Wright’s African Heritage Food Co-Op seeks to expand its successful ownership model. Operating in both Buffalo and Niagara Falls, with each co-op member he adds, he creates a base for the wealth of the black community.

And food justice leader Rita Hubbard-Robinson’s ambitious plan for an East Buffalo Farmer’s Market, aquaponics system and wellness center — all under one roof — is shaping up to be transformative.

With adequate capital, these three initiatives will dramatically increase access to fresh food in East Buffalo. Last month’s conference was designed to help them get it. In the coming days, we will meet with local bankers and foundation leaders, as well as domestic investors who attended the conference. We intend to create a consortium of investors willing to provide funds that will unleash Black entrepreneurship in Buffalo, reduce disparities in health outcomes for residents, and create community wealth in these neighborhoods long denied by past and discredited public policies and private practices.

With potential investors willing to find a way forward, we are not helpless in this task. Nor without hope of its success. On the contrary, we are poised to put East Buffalo at the forefront of correcting America’s health and nutrition disparities that should never have been created or allowed to persist. And perhaps, in this way, pay tribute to those who lost their lives for the simple reason that they bought fresh fruits and vegetables.

Back at the corner of Jefferson and Landon, with most of the temporary May 14 memorials removed, a few flower pots hang from spare sidewalk trees as, one by one, the flowers fade and the leaves fall on the sidewalk. Silent reminders of the fleeting nature of our time here on Earth and the moral obligation we all share to make life decent and humane for all.

Kevin Gaughan, Buffalo lawyer and civic leader, is the founder of the American Food Equity Conference. His email is [email protected]

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