On May 14, the racially motivated mass shooting at Buffalo’s East Side Tops Market killed 10 Black people and left not only grief and devastation in its wake, but a food crisis caused by the closing of the store that served as the predominantly Black and low-income community’s main source of fresh food for two months this summer.
Wednesday, more than 40 experts on food access and equity from Buffalo and across the country gathered on the 37th floor of the Seneca One Tower for a meeting of the minds aimed at solving the grocery gap that was laid bare by the massacre.
Buffalo attorney Kevin Gaughan organized the American Food Equity Conference in response to the hate crime in hopes that the spotlight it put on Buffalo’s food equity problem will also serve to help solve it.
“Each of us here today was summoned here by tragedy, but also beckoned here by hope,” Gaughan said in opening the conference. “Equal access to fresh food is a civil right and a human right to which no one should be denied.”
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The conference, which was live-streamed on Facebook via americanfoodequity.org, began with a presentation by Caroline Harries, associate director of The Food Trust in Philadelphia, who described the many local, state and federal resources that organization has helped implement over the last 30 years.
Harries said recent surveys show that 19 million U.S. residents live without access to nutritional food, largely because of where they live, and that creates not only a grocery gap, but a health gap. For example, the life expectancy of residents of East Harlem is 76, 10 years shorter than that of their neighbors who reside a few blocks away on Manhattan’s upper East Side, mostly due to “diet-related diseases” like diabetes and heart disease.
Harries said the Buffalo conference comes at a key moment, when the federal government is mobilizing to address the problem on a national level, as seen by the Biden administration’s recent White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, which Harries attended.
The Food Trust has helped bring grocery stores, farmer’s markets, co-ops and other healthy food options to Philadelphia neighborhoods that had long suffered from disinvestment. Also helping are programs like the Healthy Corner Store initiative, the Food Bucks program that allows people receiving federal SNAP benefits to double their purchasing power for fruits and vegetables, and alternatives to “healthy food retail” like farm markets and co-ops.
But she said making it less prohibitive for grocery stores to locate in lower-income neighborhoods must also be part of the solution.
“While grocery stores are not a silver bullet, they are foundational in communities,” she said.
“They’re really important places to purchase produce year-round, important venues for nutrition education and programming, places to redeem your SNAP benefits, fill prescriptions and receive nutrition incentives," she said. "A body of research also shows that people who live in communities without a supermarket suffer from disproportionately high rates of diet-related diseases.”
Harries highlighted two federal Healthy Food Financing Initiatives that the Food Trust has used to fund markets in Philadelphia in areas that would otherwise be seen as less profitable based on income, access to transportation and other demographics: America’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative (funded by the USDA) and the Community Development Financial Initiative HFFI funded via the U.S. Treasury.
In a question-and-answer session, another national expert, Darriel Harris of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Liveable Future, asked whether such programs could be used to bring smaller chains like Aldi and Save-a-Lot to target areas of Buffalo.
Molly Hartman, senior director of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative at the Philadelphia-based Reinvestment Fund, said multi-national corporations like those are the exception for federal funding programs.
“They have money and they make their decisions about where they locate based on where they think they can make enough money to pay the bills,” Hartman said.
Tops Friendly Markets CEO John Persons, said grocery chains like Tops may not be able to tap into federal grants and loans to locate in underserved communities, but suggested there are other ways to assist those businesses, such local training programs for store staff, technical assistance and transportation initiatives.
“There seems to be a lack of elements that could support some of these larger organizations locally,” he said.
The conference’s afternoon agenda included presentations by three local food equity leaders whose projects are poised to greatly increase access to healthy food in under-invested areas of Buffalo if given the resources, funding and support to succeed.
Allison DeHonney, CEO of Urban Fruits and Veggies, Alexander Wright, founder of the African Heritage Food Co-op and Rita Hubbard-Robinson, the conference’s co-chair and the founder of Project Rainfall, an urban aquaponics farm and farm market will have their projects “lifted up” for support at the conference, Hubbard-Robinson said.
Out of town participants received a morning tour of Buffalo’s East Side that included visits to those projects, she said.