The good news: Tops is reopening soon in its original Jefferson Avenue location. Maybe even better news: New, diverse food delivery systems are taking shape throughout nearby neighborhoods.
Every neighborhood in Buffalo – north, south, east or west – deserves access to fresh food and that access shouldn’t be limited to one supermarket, a precarious situation that could easily return to zero supermarkets, even without a tragedy.
It’s important to understand that getting a Tops supermarket took more than a decade of advocacy by community leaders and residents. A push for a food co-op, “Our Market,” during the ’90s didn’t get much official traction, but it did help demonstrate that a supermarket could be economically viable – hence the arrival of Tops in 2004.
Now, a co-op – the African Heritage Food Co-op – is back on the table, as is a separate farmers market and grocery store project on High Street from the St. John Fruit Belt Community Development Corp. These resources could have game-changing impacts.
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While the return of Tops is essential, the idea that residents have been sitting and waiting for food infrastructure to come to them is both untrue and unproductive. Residents put together the market studies and advocacy that drew in Tops. Over the past few decades, residents have also been maintaining a network of community gardens, many under the umbrella of Grassroots Gardens. Grassroots also administers the Freedom Gardens program, which help individuals start their own backyard food plots.
These efforts, often volunteer-run, are community-driven according to needs determined by neighborhood leaders.
In 2018, a study by University at Buffalo’s Urban Planning professor Samina Raja and others concluded that local government plays an essential role in creating an equitable food infrastructure, but it only works if the people most affected by the plans and policies that are created are actively engaged and included in decision-making.
Sounds obvious, but it can be a delicate balance.
How has the City of Buffalo engaged in food disparity issues around Buffalo? In response to issues that arose during the pandemic, the city has taken some steps toward building food security over the past year, including allocating $1 million in American Rescue Funds to support, through grants, community food gardens and other programs that reduce food insecurity.
In addition, Buffalo and Erie County have a Food Action Plan, instituted in 2020, that lays out some excellent goals, like encouraging more urban agriculture and farmers markets, reducing food waste, supporting local food production and food entrepreneurs and helping to expand healthy options in corner stores. One of the committee members and authors of this plan is Allison DeHonney, Urban Fruits & Veggies/Buffalo Go Green, who also chairs the Buffalo & Erie County Food Policy Council. Buffalo Go Green has been a major fresh food provider in Tops’ absence.
Though fresh food access is still a big issue in parts of Buffalo – and in other area of Western New York – it really seems that the will, the knowledge and the organizational tools are in place.
All that remains is the work – and more funding.
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