The Lexington Co-Op seeks to provide the freshest produce, bulk, and prepared foods. <span class='image-credits'>Anthony Ramirez</span>

Growing good in the city

We had prearranged to meet at a drug store on East Delavan and Bailey to begin a trek around the East Side. My tour guide is a big, burly man with dreadlocks and a disarming smile. On this cold November morning, he’s wearing shorts, a short-sleeved t-shirt, and a vest. I thank him for inviting me to his neighborhood to show me why he does what he does.

Alex Wright is president of African Heritage Food Co-op. He founded it just 16 months ago; membership is open to anyone—although it began with African-Americans in mind. The AHFC organizes five to eight farmers’ markets (or mobile markets) in the summer and 15 pick-up dates at various locations throughout the year. Members pay $30 for a large box packed with fruits and vegetables from local farmers. Nonmembers pay a little more.

As he drives, he asks me to imagine I am a single mother. I have no car. I need to go to the store to get food. He points out that there are some stores close by called markets. We go in a few. I notice on the back of his vest it says “Anything less than ownership is unacceptable.”

By the time we find a store that offers fruit and vegetables, I would have had to take upwards of four to five buses to get there and traveled nearly four miles, not to mention I am probably carrying my baby. We note that the prices for the peppers, lettuce, collard greens, and apples aren’t terrible, but there are no scales for weighing them. In one corner store, bananas cost an exorbitant 75 cents a pound, however.

The USDA defines a “food desert” as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”

An oasis in the food desert

Born and raised in Buffalo, Wright went to Buffalo Prep and Nichols School on academic scholarships and earned a degree from University at Buffalo Law School. He has worked for many nonprofit agencies, but says, “You must make sacrifices for what you think is right.” He believes nonprofits do good things for communities, but leaders often leave and take with them their projects. “Communities need to be people-based. The people who live there aren’t leaving,” he says.

Alexys Swygert, who was born and raised in Buffalo, has been a member of the AHFC for just over a year. She heard about it on Facebook and says she and her husband used to spend a lot of money on groceries. Since becoming a member (which is $50 a year), they can buy a $30 produce box, and it lasts six weeks. This has cut their grocery bill, she says. They do not live near a grocery store. “The co-op is one of the biggest blessings to me and my family,” she says. Between them, she and her husband have four children, ranging in age from 5 to 15. Swygert says since joining the co-op, she has eaten food she had never heard of before, such as butternut squash. And the best thing? “Now my little one asks for an apple with peanut butter for a snack!” she says.

The African Heritage Food Co-op, one of several answers to the problem of Buffalo’s food deserts, grew out of Wright’s vision to create jobs for the people in his neighborhood, for one thing. In one corner store, he pointed out, the employees are friends or family of the owners. “This doesn’t improve this community,” he said. His goal is to hire some 65 employees over the next five years, providing them a living wage, and to increase membership to 6,000. Wright says he wants to hire veterans, single parents, and criminals.

He’s planning a major fundraiser in February to help raise money for a building, he said. He’s thankful for all he has been able to accomplish with the support of his wife, business partners, and volunteers, but sometimes he gets discouraged by naysayers. He has to remind himself it has only been just over a year since AHFC launched. “I feel we are making a difference in the city,” he said.

Growing urban farms

The Massachusetts Avenue Project, on the West Side at 271 Grant St., is another solution that sprouted up to meet the need for people to have access to nutritious, affordable food. Through mobile markets, farm education, a youth program, and community education, people of all incomes help transform vacant lots into urban farm plots, growing more than 70 varieties of fruits and vegetables year round.

Diane Picard, executive director of MAP, was the first staff member hired in 1998. She believes MAP is making headway in the desert, serving some 10,000 people each year through its mobile markets, and 33,000 school children are able to benefit from receiving nutritious food through farm stands.

She’s pleased with the inroads MAP has made in the city, but acknowledges that funding is always a challenge. Schools are overwhelmed, she says, and young people don’t receive support for making healthy choices.

“It’s particularly difficult to get policy makers to understand food justice is an integral part of economic development,” she says, “and we all need it.”

Gabriel Cohen, an American citizen who moved to Buffalo in 2015, began working for MAP just over a year ago. He is one of 42 youth who are hired each year in all aspects of urban agriculture, food systems, food-based entrepreneurship, and nutrition education. He says he has definitely been changed.

“MAP encourages you to grow as an individual,” he said. “Because of the work I have been able to do on behalf of policy work and with nonprofits, I feel I am gaining life skills. My future is brighter because of MAP.”

Picard is excited that MAP is building a new farmhouse so it can expand a community training center this spring. It will boast a licensed commercial kitchen and 3,000 square feet of dry storage, creating more markets for local farmers. She believes within three years, there will be an increase of people moving to cities, so solutions like MAP and others are improving access to healthy food.

Pride of ownership

The Lexington Food Co-op, with two locations at 807 Elmwood Ave. and 1678 Hertel Ave., almost never closes. Open from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily, this bustling hub offers fresh foods prepared daily, local organic produce, and bulk products such as cheese, nuts, granolas, and beans. Members and nonmembers alike can buy such items as fair-trade bananas—which are the most popular item—according to Joann Tomasulo, marketing and enrollment owner-manager.

Anyone can shop at the co-op, but if you’re one of more than 10,000 owners, you would receive 15 percent off everyday bulk pantry items, as well as a host of other member benefits. The Lexington Co-op seeks to be “the friendliest store in town with the freshest produce, bulk and prepared foods coming from local and organic farms.”

They may well be close to achieving their mission, since most of their 145 employees live in the communities they serve. The Lexington Co-op’s mission, or “Big Direction” as they like to call it, includes the values of “happy, knowledgeable people,” “local, sustainable food,” “co-op economy,” and “sustainability.” “Through our everyday actions, we feel we are edging the world closer to our values,” reads a statement on the website.

Tomasulo concurs. While she knows the co-op can’t be all things to all people and they are always looking to be better, they are proud of the new store on Hertel Avenue, which opened in July 2017, and they’d like to see a co-op in every neighborhood that wants one.

Because of the efforts of the African Heritage Food Co-op, the Massachusetts Ave. Project, the Lexington Food Co-op, and others like them, families can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, and people who live in Buffalo can own a part of their future, improving their communities and their lives. In the spirit of the Lexington Food Co-op, that is indeed, “making the world a better place, one head of lettuce at a time.”

Read more articles by Cynthia Machamer.

Cynthia Machamer earned a B.A. in writing from Houghton College and has more than 15 years of experience writing in the nonprofit sector. She moved to Buffalo in 2005, and her happiest moments are spent with her two grown children and her niece.
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