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US (NY): Advocates look for new ways to fill city ‘food deserts’

For six years, Alexander Wright lobbied local politicians, foundations, and investors to fund his vision for a grocery store on Buffalo’s East Side. The African Heritage Food Co-Op, he promised, would make affordable, healthy produce accessible in a neighborhood with few convenient options besides dollar and corner stores.

The Buffalo Bills Foundation kicked in $50,000. Donations ticked up during the pandemic and after the 2020 racial justice protests. But it wasn’t until a White supremacist killed 10 Black shoppers at one of the East Side’s few full-service markets that Wright finally secured the $3 million he needed to break ground on the project.

“I hate that it had to take this,” said Wright, a former nonprofit director. “But now we want to do this so perfectly that it shows what front-line communities can do when we have the resources.”

Among other planned projects, the owner of an urban farm off Jefferson Avenue is fundraising to open a $7 million wellness center with greenhouses and clinic space. A faith-based development group obtained four vacant lots and announced plans to open a neighborhood grocery. Nonprofit organizations and businesses have received grants and other support to plant vegetable gardens, subsidize fresh produce purchases, and install health-screening stations.

No American city has yet bested the stubborn problem of low grocery access, several policy experts said. But as unprecedented funding and attention flow to the East Side — and as communities across the country re-evaluate their strategies for addressing food-access gaps — Buffalo could serve as the model for a new, collaborative approach that favors a network of community-led projects over one-off public investments.

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