Many Americans do not need a data visualization to see that their places, especially their cities, are sharply divided along racial lines. Even so, the Weldon Cooper Center’s “Racial Dot Map,” built from data culled from the 2010 U.S. Census, can be startling in its revelations. A 2015 Washington Post article uses the map to highlight the infrastructure that has been a cause or a reinforcement of these divisions. Zoom into Eight Mile Road in Detroit, Troost Avenue in Kansas City, and Main Street in Buffalo, and the colors representing the race of the residents repel each other into defined areas as if magnetically charged. These racial divisions are often correlated to access to jobs, transportation, schools, and healthy, affordable food. Residents of the Rust Belt particularly know that attempts to address these divisions through highway rerouting and rebuilding can be stalled for many years. Even if eventually addressed, the results are often mixed. In the meantime, what is to be done?
Alex Wright models one possible response. On June 25, 2016 he founded the African Heritage Food Co-Op (AHFC) in Buffalo, New York. The AHFC offers monthly produce boxes for a buy-in of $30/month. Membership costs $50 a year and includes discounts, fiscal perks, voting rights, and the opportunity for committee and board participation. Since its founding, the membership has grown from 10 to 110, and AHFC has served over 30,000 people.
AHFC has formed partnerships with Fresh Food Fellows in Buffalo and has started hosting the Black Business Bazaar on pick-up days. Wright was invited to speak at the annual meeting of Syracuse Grows, a volunteer organization that promotes community gardens and urban agriculture in Syracuse, New York, and Matt Stewart met him there. They met again in Buffalo to have a conversation about the AHFC, the city of Buffalo, urban agriculture, co-ops, and the impact of racism on food access on an AHFC pick-up day. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt: Can you tell me about the founding of African Heritage Food Co-Op?
Alex: Sure. A couple years ago I had neck surgery, so I was down and had to take time off, and I started doing research on black social movements that have happened over the last hundred years. I started to see a couple patterns: one pattern is that whenever the group relies on one leader, that person’s character can be assassinated, or they can be literally assassinated. And then the entire movement goes caput. We saw that when Marcus Garvey was deported, when MLK and Malcolm X were assassinated, even in the Black Panther movement—when there is one guy who’s the icon, it gets knocked down. Two, in the same vein, I saw that there was no succession planning. Who’s next? Who’s around? Who are you building up? And that’s a problem in social movements no matter the color, but specifically I was studying the black movements. I wanted to do something that didn’t really have a leader, that was created to have a legacy, that was created to live on past the founding.
I was thinking about what I could do. You look at the health rates for African-Americans—diabetes, stroke, heart attack—these rates are exponentially higher for African-Americans than any other ethnicity. While I was thinking about these things, an incident happened in one of the corner stores here in Buffalo. A young lady asked the store owner for a pen. The owner, who wasn’t African-American, launched it—like he was trying to take her head off—and he and I had words. And I walked out of there, and I was thinking, “They do this to us because they have a monopoly. We’re going to do something about this.” That was the catalyst, that’s when the stuff I was studying took form. We’re going to do a food co-op. And I started pitching the idea to different people and folks got really excited about it.
Matt: You’ve had great success in a short amount of time. Was this a matter of it being the right idea at the right time, or was there more groundwork that went on beforehand? You have a background with a couple of non-profits in the area.
Alex: Me, of course! (laughs). No, it is the right idea for the right time, and it is being done the right way. People talk about food access all the time. But they talk about food access as, “We—from whatever community we’re from—are going to come in and provide fruits and vegetables to you people that are here and don’t know any better, and we’re not necessarily going to hire you either. We may hire one or two of you part-time to make it look good, but you’re not going to have any ownership or control over it.” I think that is the biggest reason that we’ve been so successful. There’s a blatant unselfishness in what we’re doing, in that I created something that could kick me out. And I think people respond to that and respect that, in that it’s not about me—it’s about us, it’s about them. We always talk about the people’s produce. This is the people’s produce, and I think that is the main reason we’ve been so successful and the reason we’ve been able to do some of the things others have not been able to do.
You can see too that we have a family environment. Everybody is treated with respect and leads in their area of expertise. The brother in here a minute ago is a grower. We’re doing our Each One Teach One farming program. He’s the director of that. I don’t try to be the director of that. We come together and use our skills in the best way. The woman that is our treasurer is a VP at Citibank. I don’t tell her how to do finance. I ask her to tell me! That’s another reason I think we’ve been successful—everybody leads in their area of expertise and then we defer to each other.
Matt: What did the original core group look like and how did you get everyone together?
Alex: I was very strategic about this. The first thing I did was recruit some people in finance. One is my cousin—she’s the VP at Citibank—and a fraternity brother of mine is helping us that’s also at Citibank. Another one of my cousins helped us with our website. She’s also a banker; she’s a tech person at a bank. I started with people that I had a familial or close relationship with, people that all had a master’s degree or better, in finance and stuff like that.
Matt: We met when you came to Syracuse to speak to Syracuse Grows. Have you made connections in other cities besides Syracuse? Have you seen AHFC attract interest outside of Buffalo?
Alex: There are different movements that are doing the same kind of thing. There’s Mandela Marketplace in Oakland, California. There’s Cooperation Jackson, which is an entire movement in Jackson, Mississippi. South Carolina has an African-American owned cooperative, City Food Cooperative Marketplace. When people say that cooperatives don’t work, they’re not doing their homework. But there are not enough. What we want to do here is create a national model. We’re starting work in Buffalo and we’re starting to organize a cooperative around Niagara Falls as well. We want to take this nationally. If the co-op does implode in Syracuse, we’ll come and help you do it in a way that we think works.
Matt: You’re from Buffalo, and you’ve lived here most of your life, correct?
Alex: Yes, most of my life. My mom married a Marine so we bounced around a little bit. I was born here, lived here until I was three. Bounced around, came back when I was twelve and lived here from seventh grade on, went away for college for a couple years and then came back.
Matt: What is your relationship to Buffalo? Upstate New York and Upstate cities particularly have lost many people. Have you been tempted to leave?
Alex: I’m in an abusive relationship with Buffalo. It’s like being a Bills fan, you know what I’m saying? (laughs). But in seventh grade at a rough school, a teacher looked at me and said we think you have potential, and I went to this Buffalo Prep Program. From there I went to Nichols School, which is one of the best schools in Buffalo. From there I went to Fairfield University, played football there for two years, ended up finishing up online. And then I went to law school at the University of Buffalo. Through all of that a lot of people, different people, saw something in me and poured a lot into me. Could I be using my education and do something else? Have I been asked to do other things? Other opportunities, other places? Yeah, but this is my home and I owe it too much to just leave it. So I want to set up the co-op, get it going. I plan to set up co-ops nationally, but only after this is stable and viable.
Matt: Can you give me the background on the “Anything less than ownership is unacceptable!” motto?
Alex: Yeah, what happens to people in East Buffalo is that they feel disenfranchised. They have no voice, no ownership in anything. We’re renting homes. Some politicians only want to hear from us when it’s time to vote, but they don’t really want to hear anything and then people get away with that because there’s no accountability, no sense of ownership. When you own your house, you care about who’s moving in down the street. Is that person selling crack? What’s going on? This is directly affecting my property value. My kids are here, this is my land. We want to push people to ownership of everything that is in your area.
AHFC is a microcosm of that. 50 bucks a year, you become an owner, you get a voice, you get used to meetings, you get used to airing your opinion and your opinion being heard. You get that feeling, you know, “Wow, we’re doing this? What else can we do? Let me get involved in my political process, let me get involved in my block club.” And when you start doing that stuff, your neighborhood changes.
My raison d’être is to change my community. It’s not just about having a store here and being extractive, I’m going to take as much as I can from the people. That’s what most of these stores are doing. They take as much as they can from us and then they put their kids through school and live somewhere else. What we want to do is put ownership in the minds of the folks to where the communities around where our stores are, where our mobile markets are, begin to change. You see a difference so now I don’t have to move to some suburb because I’ve created a nice, safe, secure environment where I am. And we the people dictate that. Not enough people understand that.
So that’s why anything less than ownership is unacceptable. I want you to know it, I want you to breathe it, I want you to bleed it, I want you to believe it and say it every day. So when people give you the, “We’re going to give you access” line—“No, I don’t want access. I want ownership.” So when people say, “Oh, you’re going to have the opportunity to use that”—“Ok, is this the beginning leading to ownership?” I want that to be in everyone in the community’s mind, even if you’re not a part of the co-op.
Matt: Right now you mostly use farms just outside of Buffalo, but you’re trying to start your own farms, right?
Alex: I would love to create a cooperative farm so we can grow and sort our own stuff and keep the prices low. Because once we get big, we’re going to be buying out these local farms. On one of the farms we’re using we went from getting one pallet to four pallets, five pallets. They were like, “whoa, you’re too big for us right now.” And we want to build our own farm because that infuses monetary gains in our local economy.
Matt: Farmer’s markets sometimes have a hipster vibe to them. Are you worried at all about hipster gentrification happening here with the co-op?
Alex: Yeah, people are worried about it. But listen, I like hipster money. The problem is not who comes and patronizes your store. The problem is who owns it and controls it. We want everyone to come and buy from our store. We’re going to have some high-end stuff. You know, you want your pterodactyl milk, we’ll get you your pterodactyl milk at a hundred bucks a gram, fine (laughs). But we’ll also have our affordable fresh produce. We’re never going to price out our base. You’ll be able to come and spend all the disposable cash you want on high-end stuff, but you’ll also be able to come in and get really good healthy things without having to get your lights cut off. So bring on the hipsters, come on in and spend your money with a place that really is for the city and for the people.
Matt: Can you speak to large-scale trends that you’re fighting against in the city such as the legacy of redlining and highways cutting through black neighborhoods?
Alex: We’re working on a program right now with Restore Our Community Coalition. We have two big parks here—we have Delaware Park and Martin Luther King Park and those parks have been separated by a highway and that highway has pillaged the black community specifically. And it’s also separated people. Racism is always going to persist as long as we’re going to be separated. Because when you’re separated you can believe whatever you want. I’m an athlete—I was an athlete, 60 pounds ago (laughs)—so when people say, “white people aren’t fast,” or “white people can’t jump” or stuff like that, I know that’s bull. When you work with or play with different races you know that those stereotypes aren’t true. And you need to have those connections. So when people say, “African-Americans are lazy,” or “African-Americans aren’t intelligent,” you can only feel that way because you obviously haven’t dealt with any. But when you start dealing with folks, then it starts to break down.
Matt: Last question—building a co-op is difficult, but now that you all have had some success, that can breed its own set of problems. Have you had to worry about problems associated with success?
Alex: I’ve seen lots of “competition” coming out of the woodwork now. But, to me, unless you’re going to give ownership to folks you’re not competing with me. We might have similar products, but if you’re not giving ownership we’re not in competition. And the more that people that have access to fresh and healthy food, I’m excited about it. The people that come to us are going to come to us, and more people are going to come. And if they can also get stuff from you, hey, “dilly dilly!” right? (laughs).