BUFFALO, N.Y. — The historic Fruit Belt neighborhood on Buffalo’s East Side, with its Grape, Peach and Lemon streets, was once thriving. Yet now, in place of the orchards that once gave the area its name, there are abandoned homes with broken steps and “no trespassing” signs, overgrown empty plots of land and a troubling lack of grocery stores.
The only supermarket on the East Side is Tops, where a white gunman killed 10 Black residents in May. While the tragedy brought national attention to this neighborhood and its status as a food desert, access to grocery stores with fresh produce remains a problem more than six months later, according to locals like Alex Wright.
Now, organizations like the African Heritage Food Co-op, which Wright founded, as well as groups like Buffalo’s Black Billion and Neu Water & Associates, are building supermarkets, growing gardens and investing in providing fresh fruits and vegetables to residents here. Their larger aim is to create a self-sufficient community.
“It’s about gainful employment,” Wright, 43, said in October of his future grocery store. “We want our employees to be able to go on vacation. We want them to be able to put their kids in tutoring and to go and get the car they can afford and to put the down payment on the house they would like. We want them to have careers.”
The problems that plague the East Side are rooted in racial segregation and redlining policies implemented decades ago. Black Buffalo residents are six times more likely to live in an area without a grocery store compared to white residents, according to a 2018 report by the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo-based think tank.
The Fruit Belt neighborhood was once bustling with grocery stores, banks and other businesses, Wright said, until the heightened presence of Black families after the 1940s, paired with redlining, restrictive covenants and other racist policies, led white families to abandon the neighborhood. Through residential segregation, Black families were prevented from buying homes in affluent white suburban neighborhoods and were steered by realtors to live in declining areas with devalued properties, like the East Side. Land banking, when private or public organizations hold land for future development, also made it difficult for Black leaders to develop their communities, according to a 2021 report by the University of Buffalo.
Today, the impacts of redlining — discriminatory practices that prevented Black families from receiving loans to purchase homes — are still visible. Many corporate leaders avoid building supermarkets in Black communities, and there is no significant improvement in Black home ownership rates over the past 30 years, according to the report. Community members fought for years before the Tops on Jefferson Avenue was built in 2003.
“That’s why I don’t call this a food desert,” Wright said. “I call it food apartheid. You have to use that word because it was racism through and through.”
Wright and other leaders are working to combat that. One organization, the Buffalo Black Billion, is led by a local pastor, Michael Chapman of St. John and Gethsemane Missionary Baptist churches. It has invested millions into 43 blocks of the Fruit Belt over the past two decades to build over 70 townhomes, a senior family life center, a hospice facility and other establishments to help strengthen the neighborhood, he said.
Chapman, 70, who was born and raised on the East Side, said that his organization is an “economic engine” for the neighborhood and owns 70% of the private property in the Fruit Belt. The redevelopment project, called the St. John Gethsemane Village, he added, is part of his church’s mission to feed the hungry, cloth the poor and provide housing and education.
“Everything we do is to build a footprint for the kingdom of God,” Chapman said. “So, we don’t do this for personal gain. We do it for the church and the ministry and the well-being of the community.”
One of Chapman’s current projects is the High Street Market, an open-air farmers market that will offer fresh fruits and vegetables. In partnership with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the $800,000 project will also allow youth to plant and cultivate gardens.
Chapman has plans to open his market next year, even though construction hasn’t started yet. He and his team are visiting the Buffalo Common Council on Dec. 20 to discuss.
By providing healthy food, Chapman said he also wants to increase the lifespan of Black residents in the community, for whom health disparities are all too familiar.
Rita Hubbard-Robinson, 62, has lived on the East Side for almost four decades. Hubbard-Robinson, who is currently the CEO of NeuWater & Associates, said that in the 15 years she’s spent studying poor health outcomes in communities like the East Side, she’s dealt with residents who have developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and obesity from a lack of access to healthy food. This, she said, can lead to chronic health issues and even premature death.
From 2016 to 2018, Black people in Erie County lost 5,000 more years of potential life than white people, according to the University of Buffalo’s 2021 report.
Efforts to offer fresh produce to residents of this neighborhood have been going on for decades before the shooting.
NeuWater & Associates is replicating a 2009 project from Louisville, Kentucky, called the Healthy Food in a Hurry Corner Store Initiative, which works with business owners to provide healthy food options in convenience stores. Since Buffalo adopted the project in 2015, Hubbard-Robinson said 13 corner stores have joined the program. NeuWater & Associates also partnered with the Buffalo Freedom Gardens in 2019 to work with churches and other faith-based groups to grow food in gardens.
She is also a volunteer coordinator for the First Fruits Food Pantry at the Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church in Buffalo. The organization distributes bags of groceries, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, to residents who are “so grateful,” she said.
“He didn’t know where he was going to get his groceries from and he came to the pantry,” Hubbard-Robinson recalled of one man she once gave food to. “And we provided him with two bags … and he cried to his car.”
Like Wright and Chapman, Hubbard-Robinson hopes to build a market in her community. The initiative, called Project Rainfall, will use a 50,000-square-foot building at 537 East Delavan Avenue for a farmer’s market and hydroponic garden. The project will also invite local urban growers to participate in the food hub. According to Hubbard-Robinson, the project has received $3.5 million so far and needs $6 million to complete and an additional $3.2 million to support the program, to buy equipment and hire staff.
Despite the challenges that lay ahead, when Wright stands at the future site for his grocery store, he envisions a hopeful future — partly because he’s not alone.
“We have a bunch of people here working together,” Wright said. “So, the beautiful thing is, this is just like a tornado of strong individuals coming together to make beautiful things happen in Buffalo.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com