It’s long been known that East Buffalo is a poor food environment, where a lack of supermarkets and other factors make it difficult for people to have access to fresh, healthy, affordable food.
The May 14 mass shooting brought the issue into focus. National media wrote stories about the situation, painting a picture of a bleak, hopeless situation. But they missed signs of hope that do exist.
Take for example Heyward Patterson, one of the 10 people killed in the massacre. He was known for driving people to the supermarket to get their groceries, part of a vast social network on the east side that allows people to survive and thrive despite the poor food environment.
In addition to this kind of social network, there are numerous community groups in East Buffalo that work tirelessly on this issue, like Grassroots Gardens of WNY.
After a rainy April, gardens will soon be full of fresh produce. Thanks to Grassroots Gardens, there are gardens scattered across East Buffalo.
“We don’t run the gardens, the community members in those communities do,” said Adamaah Grayse, food justice organizer and policy fellow for Grassroots Gardens. “But we support them. So we are able to support them with the materials as far as seeds and help build beds.”
Such a garden is not going to replace a community’s need for a supermarket.
“You’re not going to get your entire meal every day out of your garden,” said Grayse. “However, if you’re able to grow a favorite pepper, a favorite tomato, that’s what you get.”
It is part of a larger solution. Grassroots Gardens is one of many groups that keep chipping away at the problem.
“Groups that are already working in the east side or have been for decades, they know exactly what the solution is,” said University at Buffalo Professor of Urban Planning Samina Raja.
Raja says people and non-profits can’t fix the problem alone.
“Because I’m someone who thinks about systems change, I’m frustrated maybe by inaction, but I don’t think that solutions don’t exist,” said Raja.
In fact, they do. She points to several city and state governments that have started to treat food like they do roads and jobs: essential parts of taking care of the population.
- Cabberas County, North Carolina decided every time there’s a real estate transaction, money from that will go into a food development fund.
- The state of California allows urban agriculture to be taxed as the same rate as rural agriculture.
- Baltimore and Seattle have food policy directors, specifically dedicated to improving the food environments in their cities.
- The city of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods runs the country’s largest community gardens program.
None of those things exist in Buffalo.
“Buffalo is a little behind,” said Raja. “We need to get there, but it can be done, and I genuinely think there are people and organizations that are committed to that, but we are not there yet.”
After the mass shooting people across Western New York and beyond wanted to help. They donated food and other items to the East Buffalo community. And they donated money.
The various groups could have all jumped up asking for it to go to them. Grayse says that didn’t happen.
“Everybody kind of in that community said fund African Heritage Food Co-op because they’ve been on the ground before this happened,” said Grayse. “They’ve already been distributing food throughout the community and they’re going to continue to do this, and right now they’re trying to build a co-op.”
Working together to address a problem that is very real but is also far from hopeless.
“You got folks who are on the ground,” said Grayse. “As we say in the Black community, they ‘been been,’ and they continue to be.”
So what can you do if you want to help? Professor Raja says there are several things to consider.
- You can donate directly to groups like Grassroots Gardens WNY, the African Heritage Food Co-op, Urban Fruits & Veggies, and others.
- You can go spend money on businesses and activities in East Buffalo. Shop at a store. Grab a cup of coffee. The more money flowing into that economy, the better the chance of attracting more stores that can offer healthier, more affordable food.
- If you live in the city of Buffalo, let your representatives know that this issue matters to you, and that you want to see investment, plans and strategies for strengthening the food environment in East Buffalo.
To see part one of this story, click here.