Jurisprudence

What We Get Wrong About Food Insecurity in Places Like Buffalo’s East Side

Football players wearing T-shirts that say "Choose Love" stand over cardboard boxes full of produce in a tent
Members of the Buffalo Bills hand out food on Wednesday at a food distribution point near the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where 10 people were killed on Saturday. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The white supremacist shooting at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, has unexpectedly thrust the community into the national spotlight. Payton Grendon opened fire in a Tops grocery store over the weekend, killing 10 Black community members. The tragedy and loss is underscored by the fallout: the temporary closing of the grocery store that was both a community gathering place and the area’s only grocery store.

To get a better understanding of how community members are dealing with food insecurity in the wake of the tragedy, I spoke with Samina Raja, the director of the University at Buffalo’s Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab. Raja explains what the food situation is like for the area under more ordinary circumstances, and why she feels the term “food desert” is not a useful one when thinking about areas like Buffalo’s East Side that face increased levels of food insecurity. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Jeremy Stahl: Did you shop at Tops? Also, can you tell me a bit about how the community had to fight to get a grocery store on Buffalo’s East Side? It’s been reported that there were none before, so when Tops arrived in 2003, was it a very big deal for the neighborhood?

Samina Raja: I’m neither Black nor do I live on the East Side, but I did use the Tops, mostly because I work on the East Side and I have friends and colleagues there. We have an active action research project underway there, so I am very familiar with the area, spend a lot of time there. But I just want to position myself clearly so there’s no confusion.

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Tops was there because the community advocated for it and fought for it. Tops was not there the way we might understand food retailers showing up at an intersection in, say, Manhattan, where the grocery store retail chain would do a market analysis and determine this is a place where we’re going to plop our store because everything works. Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in America, 17th on a list of 113. The East Side of Buffalo, east of Main Street, is the area that was part of the redlining maps that was targeted and designated this is not where you would invest money. If you look at those redlining maps and you look at the grocery store retail pattern, they match each other. In other words, the disinvestments that happened in the 1930s, that happened over the decades, are mirrored even today.

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In 2008, we measured every neighborhood and what food retail was in the city of Buffalo and in the larger county. In predominantly Black neighborhoods, where the Masten Park neighborhood is, you have about 0.4 times the number of supermarkets compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. That prevalence is adjusted for wealth and income. That means that if you went to a comparably wealthy neighborhood in a predominantly white neighborhood compared to Masten Park, you would actually see significantly more supermarkets there. So it’s kind of a contemporary redlining. The fact that Tops is there is remarkable and really a testament to the community.

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I’ve been frustrated with how little understanding there is of the work that neighbors have actually done. We have some of the oldest community gardens in that area. The oldest coffee roastery is Golden Cup from Tops on Jefferson. We have a whole group of people, Ms. Della Miller, who actually sold vegetables on the sidewalk to protest before this Tops opened in 2003. People have been fighting for this for a very long time, which is why, when it opened, it became a hub.

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The morning of the shooting, I was texting friends to find out where they were because everybody goes. That surrounding neighborhood is also an area where there is very low vehicular ownership. And so the community actually drives people to this Tops. One of the victims, Mr. Heyward Patterson, was one of those people. He would drive people around so that they would get to the grocery store. People’s activism and their energy around this, people have not understood, and that’s a real shame.

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In our survey which we did in the neighborhood with East Side residents, we have a significant percentage of people reporting Tops on Jefferson as their primary food source. Meaning there aren’t other places that they would go to. I don’t think folks understand the centrality of this location for people’s lives, especially those that don’t have cars, that are elders, and want to have a social experience there.

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Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like right now there and what kind of work is being done among the community to help ensure that people have the food that they need?

Given the setting of historic disinvestment, people have come to rely on their social networks, and therefore, they also have responded super fast. We’ve seen this at the time of COVID, and we saw this again now. We have a Black farmer who is moving produce to families that are in need, we have African Heritage Food Co-Op, which is a Black-led, Black-owned cooperative on the East Side that is delivering food to people. Within very short order there was a community intake form that was put up by an organization called Black Love Resists in the Rust. BLRR is also responding door to door, and African Heritage Food Co-Op is delivering. You have Allison DeHonney from Urban Fruits and Vegetables, which is the urban farm, delivering the food. You have BLRR providing mental health services. They are organizing and moving food and responding to needs, not only food, I will say—if somebody needs baby food, diapers.

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All of this I would suggest would not have happened as fast if this community didn’t already have the kind of tight networks that it already does. We have an organization called Colored Girls Bike Too, which is a bicycling group led by Jalonda Hill—they are delivering the food as well. In addition, there is a caucus space for Black, brown, and Indigenous people called Buffalo Food Equity Network that convened last night to provide a space for memory and healing. We have Feed Buffalo, New York, which is a Black-led halal food space that is led by the singer Drea d’Nur. And she has been holding healing spaces for people to come in, eat good food, have a healing space with a community with other people. All of this is happening in the city of Buffalo immediately.

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What does the preexisting infrastructure look like for offering food support right now?

It’s not just about Tops. The presence or absence of a grocery store in a neighborhood is connected to an entire supply chain. You need cold storage, you need distribution units, you need all of this infrastructure that doesn’t exist on the East Side, and so people are responding. Feed Buffalo has a beautiful, open—I’m reluctant to call it a food pantry because that is how people would understand it, but it is meant to be a place of food with dignity. There’s a space you can go in, there’s art, it’s quite lovely. But for the food piece, you have farms, you have African Heritage Food Co-Op vans, and you have Urban Fruits and Veggies cold storage that is making this possible, but of course we need a lot more. African Heritage Food Co-Op has been trying to do a capital campaign of $3 million to open a storefront.

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Could you speak to that a little bit in terms of how urgent it is to get the Tops back open, but also to have greater resources going forward, and what to you that would look like?

I would say it’s absolutely urgent to open the Tops back up as soon as it can. We really need to have a way to invest in broader community food infrastructure. We need African Heritage Food Co-Op to have a storefront—he’s been trying for a few years. Urban Fruits and Veggies has a proposal for a community center that will have a greenhouse that will have all of these other elements. I don’t think Tops by itself is enough for the community. It wasn’t enough even before, and it would be a mistake to just go back to that.

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Do you have thoughts on lessons learned around emergency food insecurity from the economic crash and food shortages during the initial phase of the COVID pandemic, how it’s different from this situation, and how those lessons are perhaps being applied to this emergency situation?

I was part of crisis response then, I’m part of crisis response now. My lab provides some back-end support to community organizations that are moving food around. The problem with scaling up in crisis response is that sometimes you reach the wrong spots. If you are too big, you don’t understand who you are taking the food to. With the more disaggregated community response post-COVID and even now, people know exactly which grandmother and which auntie and which door they have to drop the food off. So Alex Wright, of the African Heritage Food Co-op, receives a list of people every night, and he has an app, he uploads the list. The next day he’s delivering.

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The lesson that I learned from the Seeding Resilience initiative during COVID was that after the crisis response, resources were being redirected to organizations and activities that were not actually getting invested in the Black neighborhoods. It’s the opposite of resilience. So I was part of the group that started it but also called for it to be shut down, because I don’t want white-led organizations to be completely extracting communities and making them vulnerable. That is literally the classic definition of white supremacy that led to what we’ve seen. Fly-in, fly-out aid without thinking the long-term health of the community is a mistake.

What would you have wanted to see in the past on the issue of food security from local government officials and state government officials, and what would you want to see going forward? 

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Everybody discovered that community infrastructure is important in the wake of COVID. We were calling grocery store workers, essential workers, and now everybody is recognizing the centrality of Tops. But local governments have never in the United States viewed food as a public infrastructure. Neither has the state government, neither has the federal government. Constitutionally speaking, the United States does not recognize the right to food. Other countries do. So, that’s a problem.

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Gov. Kathy Hochul has to really understand food as a public infrastructure. Economic development funds should be going to Black-led, community-led food businesses. At the local level, I have called the city of Buffalo “food-blind” when I first arrived here. The city has a master plan, or a comprehensive plan as they called it, but no reference to food at all. Because of activism by community members, then the city changed its subsequent policies and is really starting to think about it. But city government needs to shift its budget from, say, police to focusing on food infrastructure. There’s no reason for us to not have publicly funded cold storage on the East Side. We have examples around the country. We have the city of Seattle that runs the city of Seattle’s community gardens program. They have a whole budget item. The city of Buffalo does not have a budget item that is for community food infrastructure. They can do that.

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Can you talk about the term “food desert” and why there’s been a shift in some places in terms of using that word?

I use the phrase “food apartheid.” Apartheid is a Dutch word that means “separate neighborhood.” We know its use in South Africa for obvious reasons. The other term is theoretically inaccurate. It’s empirically inaccurate. It’s theoretically inaccurate because deserts are perfectly healthy ecologies. And deserts in some settings are naturally occurring ecologies. As soon as we use the term “food desert,” we kind of talk about it like we talk about the free market: There’s like this mythical thing—it just suddenly happens! It’s a term that disallows paying attention to how things got to be. I started by talking about redlining in 1931. The reason I start there is because it helps explain that what is happening on the East Side of Buffalo today is the result of particular decisions that were made by public policy.

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Secondly, it’s a deficit-based term. It draws attention to a problem, but not all of the agency and resistance that people have demonstrated. The experience on the East Side, if you live there or work there, is not only about deficit. It’s people organizing, moving food, holding healing spaces, doing all of this work. So the term “food desert” doesn’t allow that for the imagination.

When I use the term “food apartheid,” it signals that there is an actor or set of actors that resulted in this. “Food desert” doesn’t do that. My suggestion is that if you are talking about an absence of supermarkets, say “absence of supermarkets.” If you are talking about the presence of convenience stores, say “convenience stores.” But the fundamental problem here is a difference of power, and who makes money. Society has gotten used to the East Side of Buffalo being the recipient of charity, not of investment. If we continue to use “food desert,” we’re going to continue to see fly-in, parachuting, drop-off aid, but never investment in the neighborhood to actually fight food apartheid.

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How does the term “food apartheid” work better in that sense? 

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“Food apartheid’ clearly signals that there is intentionality, it is not an accident, and therefore it demands that we redress it. Empirically, though, measuring food apartheid is no joke. When I’m doing measurements, I use Gini coefficients [which measure the amount of inequality in a social group] to show where the concentration of stores is in Buffalo. “Food apartheid” is a very useful term to explain the power situation and the agency. It is not easy empirically. For empiricism, you have to be very direct: percentage of supermarkets, or Gini coefficient. I have computed Gini coefficients to show that the story of East Side is about accumulation in white neighborhoods, not just about deficit in Black neighborhoods. And as long as we keep talking about what’s absent, we don’t talk about accumulation in white neighborhoods.

What would you advise people who have seen what happened in Buffalo, who are from all over the world, and want to support in the way that you’ve described, that centers the community and doesn’t extract?

Right now, they can support Black-led organizations that are doing food delivery. African Heritage Food Co-Op is doing that, Urban Fruits and Veggies is doing that. Supporting African Heritage Food Co-Op actually does two things. It responds to need right now, because he’s literally doing deliveries. But if you are thinking about the long run, contribute to his capital campaign. So that we actually have a Black-led, Black-owned cooperative store in the community.

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