Melissa Harris-Perry: You're back with The Takeaway. I'm MHP.
It's been one year since a racist mass shooting in a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, so we're going to listen back to a story we aired last May about the importance of that store. Just to note, since this story first aired, the Tops supermarket has reopened its doors. The attack on a Tops Supermarket on Buffalo's East Side comes in the context of a long history of systemic racism and racial segregation.
The city was literally split in two by the creation of the Kensington Expressway in the 1960s, which cut through a Black neighborhood and reinforced segregated East and West Sides. That segregation continues. According to the Partnership for the Public Good in Buffalo, as of 2018, 85% of residents who identified as Black in Buffalo still lived East of Main Street. Just a few blocks from the dividing line of Kensington Expressway is the Tops Supermarket. It's a grocery store that residents had to fight just to get.
According to New York Times reporting, residents campaigned for over a decade before this Tops finally opened in 2003, and as a result of the shooting, it closed. With the racist massacre shuttering the lone grocery store in this part of East Buffalo, community members are now faced with the challenge of finding healthy and affordable food. Allison DeHonney is Founder and Executive Director of Buffalo Go Green, and Craig Willingham is Managing Director for CUNY's Urban Food Policy Institute. Allison and Craig, thank you both for being here.
Craig Willingham: Thank you.
Allison DeHonney: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Allison, I understand your organization operates just a few blocks away from the Tops Supermarket. Can I just start by asking how you're doing, how the community is doing?
Allison DeHonney: Sure. Well, we are all very devastated. We're struggling to wrap our heads around what happened, but we're also working diligently. When I say we, those of us who have been working in the food space for food justice, for environmental justice, are also coming together to figure out how we move forward.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Allison, I got to say, just to back up a bit on this, I think I've said this many times on the show before, I have a little bit of land here in North Carolina. I'm very proud of my backyard community garden work that I do, but I got to say, growing vegetables in North Carolina feels like a really different experience potentially than in Buffalo. Can you talk to me about what it is that you do to create food justice?
Allison DeHonney: Several years ago, our master and district councilman who was very in touch with his constituency was talking to me about the lack of food access for fresh fruits and vegetables, food insecurity. At the time, I was working in-- I have a history in corporate America insurance, and I started to do some research and I thought, "Wow, I could build a business around this, but where am I going to grow food?" I partnered with a few folks, asked them to help me learn how to grow, and we found the space because there are several-- I think we're up to a couple, maybe a little under 2,000 vacant city lots in Buffalo. I could be wrong on that number.
There are just so many. They've been vacant for many, many years. We found a space and transformed it, not only with raised beds but also greenhouses. In addition to doing that, we created a neighborhood community around growing and beautification of the neighborhood. I know that farming in a rural space sometimes it's hard to wrap your head around how do you do that in an urban space and actually, it's very enjoyable. Your harvest-to-table distance is so short that you are providing a high nutrient-dense product to your clients and customers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Craig, I want to talk to you because this space in East Buffalo, there was a time that many of us would've described it as a food desert. That is a term that is profoundly problematic for a number of reasons. How can we talk about food justice and also about scarcity without using these naturalizing terms like desert?
Craig Willingham: What we're really talking about is the nature of the built environment and the choices that are made in terms of businesses, the political choices, and the ways in which we decide which neighborhoods get what resources. In terms of the availability of fresh, healthy, affordable food, what we really see is a grocery gap. The number of grocery stores in certain neighborhoods are sometimes zero, whereas other neighborhoods have two, three, four options.
As policymakers, as elected officials, as advocates, what we need to do is try to understand why that's the case and what are the sorts of things that we can do to make sure there's equity in terms of supermarket access throughout a city.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Craig, when you first heard about this attack, obviously all of us were thinking first about the loss of life, about the violence, but what came to mind initially for you knowing that the location was in a community grocery store?
Craig Willingham: Structural racism exists on a continuum. The racist murder of those innocent people in Buffalo is one part of that continuum, and the factors that make it difficult for Black neighborhoods to secure a full-service supermarket is another part of that continuum. However, both are linked by anti-Black policies, motivations, and stereotypes that restrict the ability of Black people in the United States to benefit from the same rights, opportunities, resources, and protections as everyone else.
That reality was manifested in the fact that residents of this neighborhood, going about their business on a Saturday simply during their shopping, were murdered in cold blood just for being Black. The fact that Black people can't even feel secure in doing their day-to-day tasks really drove home the point of the work that we need to do in 2022.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, we're going to take a quick break. We're going to have more on these issues of food justice and the mass shooting in Buffalo in just a moment. This is The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Now, we're listening back to a show we aired last year about food justice in East Buffalo, where the deadly racist attack occurred at a Tops Supermarket. Tops was the sole supermarket in the community, and its closing left residents with less access to healthy and affordable food. Local organizations have been stepping up to help in the immediate aftermath. Back with me now is Buffalo Go Green Founder and Executive Director, Allison DeHonney.
Allison DeHonney: We've called [unintelligible 00:08:03] again the way we did at the start of COVID my organization who works closely with the University of Buffalo Food Lab and Dr. Samina Raja, the Buffalo Food Equity Network, the African Heritage Food Co-op. We are gathering and putting together a system of how we're going to get groceries out to those who cannot make it to the new location, the temporary location for Tops, or those who even though they could get a ride are not in a position to do that.
We have created documents that we're sharing with names and phone numbers and locations. We've created a schedule by which we are all on call. Buffalo Go Green has mobile produce markets. We are out in the neighborhood delivering. We were delivering yesterday all afternoon into the evening and just making sure that those who need groceries and food are getting that. So many folks literally walked to that grocery store on Jefferson Avenue.
Part of what makes up what used to be called a food desert which better is described by calling it food apartheid, one of the reasons that that neighborhood can be classified like that is because of the lack of number of vehicles that individual residents and families have at their disposal. So many folks in our city do not have transportation and they need to walk. Even though the temporary location for Tops is not that far away, if you have a vehicle to walk that distance is a different story. Right now, they're saying the reopening, there's no definite date. If this extends into the cold weather, then folks really have challenges.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nearly every one of the victims of the massacre was a senior citizen and elder in the community. Can you tell me a bit about senior citizens and food access in the neighborhood?
Allison DeHonney: Yes. Many of the seniors that are in our network and in the surrounding neighborhood, they were already struggling to find good produce. A lot of folks would say to me, you can't find good produce anywhere. A lot of the seniors, their history or their family lineage is connected to the South. Many of them grew up on farms in the South before their families migrated to the North and settled in Buffalo, so they know what it is to go to the farm or your backyard and pick a green pepper and a tomato.
That's what we provide in this neighborhood. We would bag our harvest and bag and deliver to many of the seniors who either can't get to us or just really have a desire to have that just harvest fruit or vegetable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Craig, can we talk a bit about this supermarket in particular? Reportedly, it took a decade of campaigning to get it here in this community. Why would a community need to fight for something as basic as a supermarket?
Craig Willingham: Sadly, too often demographics and perceived consumer behavior drives why supermarkets decide not to locate in certain neighborhoods. However, by neglecting to recognize and talk about historic influences for the dearth of supermarkets within cities, policymakers imply that often the residents, in this case, Black residents, are themselves to blame for the lack of healthy food options. This is something that has been an issue for decades.
One of the things that has been a bright spot is the success of communities like the one in Buffalo, where advocates were able to push and push and finally get a supermarket open. However, it shouldn't be the case that these residents have to work so hard to get the same basic resources that others get throughout the city. One of the only reasons why this continues to be the case is the fact that the structural issues that create this sort of environment have yet to be addressed in a meaningful way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Given the capacity of supermarkets and large corporations to make those kinds of decisions about siting, are there structural changes that can be made that provide some permanent solutions?
Craig Willingham: The work that's happening on the ground in so many communities that helps to create this culturally community constructive food environment can act as a support, a supplement for the lack of access in many neighborhoods. From the commercial perspective, from the business perspective, I think there needs to be a real reckoning in terms of understanding why corporations, why business owners, why food suppliers are making the decisions that they're making and understanding that as much as making a profit, as much as being a successful business is an important aspect of the work they do, they also need to think about the equity components of how they do the work that they do and
making sure that the same level of fairness, the same level of scrutiny in terms of making choices of where they're going to cite supermarkets is being done across the board, not just in certain neighborhoods.
I think having a robust oversight of the behavior of places like supermarkets that are so critical to neighborhoods, from the perspective of local elected officials, understanding that we need to make sure that everyone has access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food and it shouldn't just be left up simply to the market.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Allison, this might seem a bit of an odd question, but let's just walk through and see if we can do this. What does food mean to people?
Allison DeHonney: It's culture, it's comfort, it's safety, it's security. It is not true that Black and brown people do not want healthy food, do not want nutrient-dense food. That is something that my organization has proven. Because food is all of those things that I just mentioned, when the threat of not having that is you're staring that in the face, that can shatter you to your core because we all know without food, we do not exist. It's that basic.
In 2020, 2010, 1999 name the year for folks to have to beg for a grocery outlet, beg for a space to grow a tomato, beg to have to take vacant lots and say, "Hey, can we grow something here?" I'm not sure what you call that but it's not humane.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Allison DeHonney is with Buffalo Go Green and Craig Willingham is with CUNY's Urban Food Policy Institute. Allison and Craig, thank you so much for your time today.
Craig Willingham: Thank you.
Allison DeHonney: Thank you, Melissa.
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