5/14: One Year Later
Originally published in the Buffalo News
Written By: Janet Gramza
The mass shooting at Tops Markets last May spotlighted the scarcity of fresh grocery options for residents in predominantly Black communities in Buffalo. Decades of disinvestment meant the Jefferson Avenue neighborhood had only one major supermarket – and the massacre closed it for months.
The morning after the mass shooting, the Rev. Denise Walden-Glen of VOICE Buffalo helped lead a vigil where she and other pastors preached love but decried the disparity that led the shooter to target the store because the population in its ZIP code is 78% Black.
The renovated Tops store reopened in July, but a year after the shooting Walden-Glen said she finds it “heartbreaking” that it remains the neighborhood’s sole supermarket.
Food insecurity is still a daunting issue in Buffalo’s Black
neighborhoods. The Tops store remains the only major supermarket in that part of the city – with no current plans for others to open. Instead, the added attention has spurred several smaller-scale initiatives that hold promise of helping to bring more healthy food options to the community.
More than 90,000 people live in the 14 neighborhoods between Main Street and the eastern edge of Buffalo, yet it remains underserved by grocery stores, restaurants and other retail outlets compared to wealthier neighborhoods. In the days after the massacre, a rallying cry emerged: abolish the “food desert” and “food apartheid” labels by bringing more options for fresh food to the neighborhoods.
As volunteers, food trucks, restaurants and others rushed in to bring fresh food to Jefferson Avenue neighbors while Tops was shut down,many voices called for permanent solutions. A year later, they see the anniversary as a time to reflect not only on the losses, but on the disparities and what’s being done to address them.
“Food insecurity in our community, particularly on the East Side of Buffalo, has manifested over decades of neglect,” said State Sen. Tim Kennedy. “We have an obligation to rectify those injustices.”
The newly passed state budget holds good news for that goal, with millions of dollars in funding for programs that will increase food access in neighborhoods in Buffalo and beyond, Kennedy said.
More state funding
One is Double Up Food Bucks NY, which allows people receiving SNAP benefits to match their fresh produce purchases dollar for dollar, up to $20 a day.
The state budget provides $2million to expand the program, which includes piloting it at its first two grocery stores – the Jefferson Avenue Tops and the Tops at 1000 Portage Road, Niagara Falls.
Field & Fork Network, which administers Double Up, responded to last year’s crisis by removing the $20 cap on fruit and vegetable purchases at five East Side food vendors – including Buffalo Go Green/Urban Fruits & Veggies mobile markets, the African Heritage Food Co-op and the Clinton Bailey Farmers Market – through the end of 2022.
The program saw record participation as a result, said Nichole Borchard, Communications and Partnership Director of Field & Fork Network. It distributed over $162,000 and signed up 1,045 new customers at the Clinton-Bailey market alone – each more than double the prior year –”proof there is a need and demand for this program,” she said.
Tops will be the first large grocery store chain to implement Double Up, starting with the two Buffalo Niagara locations in June and adding more later in the year, Borchard said.
Kennedy said the state budget also includes a “game-changing” $135 million statewide for a universal free lunch program to ensure meals for schoolchildren in kindergarten through 12th grade regardless of family income.
And it allocates $10 million for farm markets and food co-ops in underserved communities and $24 million for Feed More WNY, which has expanded its number of partner food pantries on the East Side from nine to 11 since 5/14.
Kennedy also is hopeful that a bill he sponsored will help lure more grocery stores to areas like East Buffalo. The State Senate recently passed the FRESH Act, which would provide incentives, including loans and grants, to attract food retailers to locate within federally designated food
“This would be another gamechanger, and we hope to get it to the assembly and onto the governor’s desk this year,” he said.
Go big? Or think small?
On the local level, people are still divided on whether East Buffalo needs another large supermarket.
Buffalo Council Member Ulysees Wingo, who has represented the Masten District since 2015, said at least two smaller markets have opened there in the past year, but some don’t support them because they cater to different
“We have one specializing in Halal food and one that’s Bangladesh community operated, but people still say it’s a food desert because of
their cultural preferences,” he said. “But there are many things you can do, like having a block club partner with them to advise them on what products their potential customers would like to see in the store.”
Wingo credited Tops for investing in the East Side since 2003, including catering to requests for more African and Hispanic foods, providing tons of free food while that store was closed, respectfully renovating and reopening it as a needed resource and deciding to close this May 14–Mother’s Day – for the comfort of staff.
“This tragedy wasn’t something Tops did. This happened to us at Tops,” Wingo said. “And Tops has become not only a partner of ours, but an ally,” Wingo said.
Those who agree celebrated the store’s reopening as a victory over the mass murderer and continue to shop there. Christopher Greer, who walked about 1.5 miles to pay his utility bill there last week, said he vowed “I will not let that stop me from going there.”
Others can’t bring themselves to go back yet, or maybe ever.
Alexander Wright, whose African Heritage Food Co-op distributed tons of fresh produce in the wake of the mass shooting, said he tried to return to that Tops and couldn’t do it. “I’m not prone to panic attacks, but when I walked in I had heart palpitations,” he said.
Wright said it will take time and “people coming together” to fill in the grocery gaps on the East Side – and that large chain supermarkets aren’t the answer.
“You could throw funds at all the big box stores to come into the community and that would only partially solve the problem, and at some point they would feel they weren’t making enough revenue and leave anyway,” he said.
Wright says the community needs to have ownership of its own food systems, but that his and other grassroots enterprises have been put in the position of infighting over funding.
“They compete, and that’s not what the community needs,” he said. “We are heading in the right direction to solve the problem and we just need to operate in the spirit of cooperation.
” Signs of progress
There are signs of progress. Two farm markets that didn’t exist before 5/14 are starting next month, said Chiwuike “Chi-Chi” Owunwanne, corporate responsibility officer for KeyBank in Western New York.
After Tops on Jefferson reopened last July and emergency food distributions wound down, KeyBank partnered with the African Heritage Food Co-op to offer an evening farm market at the Delavan-Grider Community Center every other Thursday from September through the end of the year.
Owunwanne said the community center location allowed the market to move indoors as winter arrived. It served over 700 households and will return permanently starting June 22.
The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission is partnering with Buffalo Go Green on another farmers market at Michigan and Broadway that will run from 3 to 6 p.m. every Tuesday from June 20 through mid-October.
Mrs. Frances Nash’s Garden Basket, named after a Buffalo woman who grew and shared produce in the neighborhood around Michigan Street Baptist Church in the 1940s, also grew out of an emergency response to 5/14 that will become an annual effort, the commission said.
Other grassroots efforts that have been years in the planning stage are starting to gain ground since 5/14, said Minister Ina Doss Chapman of St. John Baptist Church, one of several faith-based organizations
working on developing vacant lots in the Fruit Belt neighborhood under the Buffalo’s Black Billion umbrella group.
Chapman said the group recently acquired its fifth vacant lot in a city block for its High Street Market project, which will build indoor and outdoor food markets, a business incubator and spaces for youth, health and nutrition programs in partnership with the Buffalo Public Schools. The project would also look to remediate vacant land to cultivate fruit trees, a pollinator garden, community gardens and even a fish hatchery, she said.
This year, the group partnered with Cornell Cooperative Extension and Grassroots Gardens WNY to grow produce in the Martin Luther King Jr. Park Greenhouse to share through community programs and the God’s Farmacy free food truck, she said.
“We are learning so much, and we really are getting somewhere,” Chapman said.
Trina Burruss, president and CEO of the Buffalo & Erie County United Way, noted that the May 14 massacre caused “the disruption of the food system for, geographically, nearly 50% of our city with the closing of one grocery store.” The Blizzard of 2022 also disproportionately impacted low-income city residents of color.
She said it will take public, private and nonprofit entities working together to address, not only food insecurity, but affordable housing, health care and child care to areas that have been on the short end of
“As we approach 5/14, we must never forget what that day felt like, what it meant, why it happened, and use it as a moment to say, ‘This is not OK,'” she said.
“This is not OK that 40% of our neighbors have tremendous issues – that they are working hard, trying hard – and yet there are systemic inequities that are built into the system that prevent the next step, that ability to