Rita Hubbard-Robinson has been working on food access in Buffalo for 20 years, and she long suspected a food crisis would hit some of Buffalo's predominantly Black and low-income neighborhoods.
She never imagined it would take the form of a racist massacre.
"My thought was it would be a result of climate change or high gas prices making food unattainable," she said. "But it turned out to be a horrible mass shooting."
The May 14 massacre at the Tops Markets store on Jefferson Avenue killed 10 people and "really cut off a lifeline for some 89,000 people who live on the East Side," she said. The neighborhoods in the area have few full-service food outlets and a median income below the poverty level, she noted.
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Five months later, Hubbard-Robinson, CEO of NeuWater & Associates and Project Rainfall, which aims to build food access, finds herself co-chairing a conference aimed at solving food insecurity in some neighborhoods in Buffalo.
Buffalo attorney and civic leader Kevin Gaughan founded the American Food Equity Conference happening Wednesday to bring national experts and local project leaders together with potential investors and advisers to address the "grocery gap" in Buffalo.
Gaughan planned the conference in response to the May 14 mass shooting by a white supremacist who targeted the Jefferson Avenue Tops to kill Black people. The shooting temporarily shut down the store for two months, sparking an outpouring of support aimed at filling the immediate need for fresh food and grocery access of residents in the neighborhood.
It also provoked a lot of discussion on how to address the city's poverty and improve food access in some neighborhoods.
Existing solutions already in the works
Several regional and community efforts to address those issues were already underway when the May 14 shooting happened, including a Western New York Food System Initiative study that produced a report with recommendations for increasing food access across nine Western New York counties.
Gaughan did his own research, consulted with food experts across the country and concluded that Buffalo doesn’t necessarily need new projects to address the problem – it can invest in existing solutions that have already shown they will succeed if properly funded.
He asked Hubbard-Robinson and a national expert, Morehouse College President David Thomas, to lead the conference taking place at Seneca One Tower.
Hubbard-Robinson said she expects the conference will bring a national view to what's happening.
"It’s not unique to Buffalo," said Hubbard-Robinson, noting that the conference could "bring to bear the corporate community, educate them and lift projects that have been long worked on in this area.”
Gaughan said the event will put national experts on food access and potential investors in the same room with Buffalo's “food justice leaders,” whose projects to solve food insecurity are already in motion and lack only a healthy infusion of capital to succeed.
He has invited three such projects – the African Heritage Food Co-op, Urban Fruits and Veggies and Project Rainfall – to be spotlighted at the conference in hopes of getting them more investment, he said.
“Exchanging ideas at a conference holds value, but I’m designing this effort to move beyond words and to create a platform for long-term investment in East Buffalo projects that will improve food access," Gaughan said. "We are prepared to meet that goal.”
The conference will include presentations by Alexander Wright, founder of the African Heritage Food Co-op; Allison DeHonney, CEO of Urban Fruits and Veggies; and Hubbard-Robinson, founder of Project Rainfall.
Among the investors will be representatives of the Pew Charitable Trust and the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility, as well as local banks and investment firms.
Local initiatives underway
The African Heritage Food Co-op has a donated building on Carlton Street and some funding, including $50,000 from the Buffalo Bills, to turn it into a grocery store and community center. The co-op’s mobile market was a big part of the emergency food response in the weeks after the mass shooting.
DeHonney founded Urban Fruits and Veggies in 2014 as an urban farm that provides fresh produce and gardening lessons to neighbors and would like to purchase another seven properties in order to expand, Gaughan said.
Project Rainfall is transforming a vacant industrial building on Delavan Avenue to include a 25,500-square-foot aquaponics farm, a 5,000-square-foot farmers market, a community teaching kitchen, health clinics and a food store.
It is poised to provide a source of fresh food as well as health services if it is sufficiently funded to renovate the 40,000-square-foot building and implement Hubbard-Robinson’s vision. Among other projects, she helped bring the Healthy Corner Store Initiative to Buffalo in 2014.
Conference co-chair David Thomas said when Gaughan invited him to lead the conversation, he hesitated because the name “conference” seemed to imply talk rather than action.
But once Gaughan shared the list of people he’s bringing together, Thomas, an expert on organizational behavior and social justice, agreed.
“One of the things that attracted me to participate was the people that Kevin is assembling,” Thomas said. “What he and his team have done is take advantage of this moment where this is a light on East Buffalo, not to dwell on the terribleness of the mass shooting that took place there, but to bring light to a problem we can actually solve.”
Notable names attending include John Thornton, past president of Goldman Sachs and chairman emeritus at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.; Molly Hartman, senior director of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative for The ReInvestment Fund in Philadelphia; and Chris Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy and chair of the family’s investment firm, Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises, as well as Top Box, a nonprofit he founded to provide healthy food in Chicago and several other cities.
Experts presenting include Caroline Harries, associate director of the Food Trust, a food access organization in Philadelphia; and Ken Kolb of Greenville, S.C., author of “Retail Inequity: Re-Framing the Food Desert Debate."
Gaughan said the Westin Buffalo Hotel is donating rooms for the out-of-town guests, Towne Automotive is providing shuttle service to include a Wednesday morning tour of East Buffalo, and conference sponsors that include the Buffalo Urban League, M&T Bank, NAACP, Catapult Consulting and Zoom Copy are covering travel expenses.
Thomas, who leads the nation’s only all-male historically Black college, said East Buffalo is suffering the same issues faced by his native Kansas City, Mo., and the Atlanta neighborhood around Morehouse College.
“More than 30 million Americans today are in a condition of food insecurity or live in communities that are so-called food deserts,” Thomas said. “The causes start with a lack of investment in those communities, including by our grocery stores.”
“Let’s bring people together who want to solve the problem and who understand that no group can solve this by themselves,” he added. “But we can solve it collectively. Even if we’re solving it one community at a time. Hopefully, the end result will benefit East Buffalo, but I also hope this will become part of the national conversation.”