Following his direct advocacy to increase food options for Buffalo’s East Side, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today announced that Buffalo’s African Heritage Food Co-op will receive $200,000 from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI). Last week, Schumer wrote directly to USDA Secretary Vilsack requesting the feds work with local community leaders in Buffalo and increase support for programs meant to boost options for low-access food areas. During a Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry hearing in May, Gillibrand pushed Secretary Vilsack on ways to combat food deserts in communities like Buffalo. During their exchange, Vilsack confirmed the HFFI program is the best way to help underserved areas increase access to healthy food and grant assistance. Since then, USDA has announced that it has heeded Schumer and Gillibrand’s call and will increase funding to the HFFI by $155 million for forthcoming grant cycles. Specifically, today’s funding will help Buffalo’s African Heritage Food Co-op to upgrade their Niagara Falls location for improved retail operations and modernize their site on Buffalo’s East Side to serve as the flagship location for the food cooperative.
“Access to fresh, affordable, healthy food is a basic right that has been constricted for neighborhoods across Buffalo’s East Side for far too long. Community leaders, like Buffalo’s African Heritage Food Co-op, have long worked to address these challenges and I am proud to deliver this USDA investment to Buffalo’s African Heritage Food Co-op to uplift community-led efforts that will directly tackle food insecurity caused by years of racially discriminatory policies,” said Senator Schumer. “When I fought alongside community leaders years ago to open the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue, I had no idea how this supermarket would one day become such a neighborhood hub. While the community continues to mourn and heal from the horrific evils of the racially-motivated, mass shooting, I hope that today’s investment can serve as small beacon of light for a brighter future for the East Side. I will not stop fighting to deliver more federal investment to give Buffalo’s families the fresh, affordable food and peace of mind they desperately deserve.”
“Long before the tragic shooting that took the lives of 10 innocent people in Buffalo, the East Side community was already battling the persistent problem of food insecurity and lacked accessible and affordable food,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I was in Buffalo fighting for this funding on Monday and now, I’m proud to be delivering it. This is an important step to put an end to hunger in our state and I will keep fighting until every child, every family, and every community in Buffalo and across our state has access to the healthy, nutritious meals needed to thrive.”
“We are elated by the commitment of the USDA to fund an organization lead by the very community it’s serving and look forward to a long meaningful partnership” said Alexander J. Wright JD Founder/General Manager African heritage Food Co-Op.
Schumer and Gillibrand explained that the African Heritage Food Cooperative was formed in 2016 to increase access to nutritious and affordable food in underserved Western New York communities, generate sustainable economic benefits by providing local employment and vendor opportunities, and encourage community ownership and involvement through cooperative participation. In 2016, AHFC opened a store in Niagara Falls, which operated as an indoor retail space until the pandemic when the store transitioned to deliveries-only to distribute food to underserved neighborhoods. In 2020, AHFC acquired a new location on Buffalo’s East Side which had previously sat vacant for 19 years. Today’s USDA investment, which Schumer called for in his push to USDA to work with Buffalo community leaders to increase investment, will go towards essential upgrades at the Niagara Falls location and retrofitting the Buffalo East Side site to serve as the flagship location for the food cooperative as they continue their mission to bring affordable and fresh food options to WNY’s underserved communities.
Schumer has a long history of fighting to uplift and increase food accessibility on Buffalo’s East Side. Schumer played a critical role, alongside community leaders including then County Legislature Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, to bring the Tops Friendly Market on Jefferson Avenue to the East Side, which they accomplished in 2003.
This Monday, following her exchange with Secretary Vilsack, Gillibrand visited Buffalo pushing for action to address food insecurity in the underserved East Side neighborhood of Buffalo and called for robust funding for the HFFI program. In addition to volunteering with FeedMore WNY at the Resource Council of Western New York to support their efforts during her visit, Senator Gillibrand also called for full funding of FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP). The EFSP was originally established in 1983 in order to respond to food insecurity and homelessness brought on by crises, and is being utilized today in Buffalo by organizations like FeedMore WNY in order to serve Buffalo community members affected by the Tops grocery store attack.
In addition to today’s funding, the senators said that the $155 million increase for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative that came after his urging to the USDA will create more opportunity for greater investment to boost affordable access to healthy food in underserved areas for both Buffalo and across New York and the country. Schumer and Gillibrand said that investments like this will increase access to healthy foods by providing new market opportunities for farmers, stabilizing small and independent retailers, and creating good-paying jobs and economic opportunity for communities that need it most. The senators said that while the horrific tragedy has highlighted these food access challenges on the East Side of Buffalo, this problem is not new or unique to the East Side, and it is time the feds step up to help the over 13.5 million people across the U.S. who lack critical access to fresh food options.
A copy of Schumer’s original letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack appears below:
Dear Secretary Vilsack,
I write to urge you to leverage all resources at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) disposal to address the lack of access to healthy, fresh food on Buffalo’s East Side and in other underserved communities across New York State and the country and work closely with local leaders to address the ongoing food access crisis in Buffalo. All communities deserve to have access to affordable, fresh, healthy food, and through increased investment in programs like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, USDA is well-positioned to help local leaders in Buffalo with efforts to expand healthy food access in the short and long-term and make use of federal investment tools to help address the unacceptable concentration of low-access food areas in far too many communities of color.
On May 14, 2022, a horrific, racially-motivated, mass shooting occurred on the East Side of Buffalo, a predominantly Black neighborhood. The shooting happened in a Tops Friendly Markets grocery store, which was the only accessible supermarket on the East Side and, as such, served as a community hub. I am intimately familiar with this supermarket, as I played a lead role, along with community leaders, in advocating for this store to open its doors on the East Side a number of years ago. Tops has unfortunately been closed in the aftermath of this bigoted attack, leaving the community without an easily-accessible supermarket.
Sadly, this is a situation with which the East Side of Buffalo is all too familiar. Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. More than 85% of Buffalo’s African American population lives east of Main Street, an area that has suffered from critical underinvestment. As a result, the community experiences an unacceptable lack of widespread access to fresh, affordable, and quality foods. For decades the East Side did not have a full-fledged grocery store. As mentioned, I worked hard alongside community members to bring Tops to the East Side in 2003, and since then, the store has been the first and only supermarket serving the Masten neighborhood community.
Now, with Tops closed following the tragic shooting, the East Side’s lack of healthy food access has grown even more pronounced. Without a local supermarket, residents are forced to spend extra time and money accessing neighboring grocery stores or paying for grocery deliveries. While resources have poured into the community to address the short-term need, residents are concerned about what will happen when those resources leave and they are still without a neighborhood supermarket.
It is vital that USDA do everything possible not just to ensure food is available in the short-term, but also to invest in healthy food access in the community – and other underserved communities across the nation – over the long-term. Programs like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), GusNIP Nutrition Incentive Program, and the Local Food Promotion Program are already poised to fund projects that increase access to affordable, healthy foods in underserved areas and can be leveraged to address critical healthy food access challenges faced by communities like the East Side of Buffalo. USDA has additional programs that provide funding and technical assistance to support expanded access to local foods, urban agriculture, and food supply chain infrastructure, to name a few. These investment programs and tools can play an important role in increasing access to affordable, fresh foods in underserved communities. I ask USDA to use these tools and their expertise to work closely with local leaders to address this issue on the East Side of Buffalo.
Though May 14th’s awful shooting has highlighted food access on the East Side of Buffalo, this issue is not unique to the East Side. Communities across the country face barriers to easily accessible fresh and healthy foods, with USDA estimating that as many as 13.5 million people across the country have low access to healthy food. This is inexcusable. Every community deserves to have easy access to fresh and healthy food. I urge USDA to do everything possible to invest in areas lacking access to fresh food and right the wrongs caused by discriminatory policies and underinvestment.
Thank you for your time and attention to this critical matter. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to reach out.