A local co-operative business has launched with the goal of closing the gap in healthy food access on Buffalo’s East Side. The African Heritage Food Co-op has established its core membership and is already hosting pick-ups at pop-up locations, with the long-term goal of building a brick-and-mortar facility that will provide employment opportunities and a fresh food market for the East Side community.
“I’m from the East Side of Buffalo. You see a serious lack of fruits and vegetables, outrageous pricing and a lack of businesses representative of the community,” said Alexander Wright, President of the African Heritage Food Co-op.
Wright’s idea was triggered when he saw an African-American customer being treated disrespectfully while shopping at a store. “A store owner threw a pen at one of the customers and I had to say something to him. That day I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what. It crystallized when I was watching a documentary about co-operatives. I turned to my wife and said “We need to form a Co-Op.”
Though the African Heritage Co-Op is still in the development stage, they have already hosted several meetings and received input from over 100 people. They have begun hosting monthly pick-ups at various locations, with the next one slated for September 10 at the Edward Saunders Community Center. Members pay a flat rate of $30 in advance (via PayPal or cash payment) and head home with a large box packed with local fruits and vegetables.
“We try to pack the boxes. We want the boxes to be overflowing, Wright said. “The amount may change depending on the produce offerings, but we make it our business to give you well over what you would have paid at the box stores.”
The Co-Op is sourcing its produce from several local farms, including Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm, Murphy’s Orchard, Bittner-Singer Orchards, Engels Farm and Urban Fruits & Veggies. Wright says they are continuing to expand their network and variety in the produce they offer, so they are looking for more local farms to partner with.
Pick-ups are currently held on a monthly basis, though the organizers hope to hit a bi-monthly schedule very soon. The upcoming dates for pick-ups are September 10, October 15, and November 10. Members and potential customers can visit the African Heritage Co-Op Facebook page for updates on pick-up locations and buy-in deadlines for the upcoming pickups. Membership is not required to purchase produce from the Co-Op, although the pricing will vary slightly.
“For non members we’re selling the overage at a few cents above cost. So if organic potatoes cost us 80 cents per pound, we may sell them for $1.00 per pound, which is still less expensive than getting them elsewhere.”
Wright’s vision is to not only establish a brick-and-mortar food market, but to build a thriving membership of 6,000 and create jobs for 60 people. He wants to create an entity where the ownership and control will stay with the residents of the East Side.
“If we can generate a strong customer base, the impact is going to be extraordinary,” Wright said. “We plan to pay a living wage and of course there is ownership. So the workers can have pride in their job and know that they benefit from the store doing well, which breeds buy-in. The community gets to see what we can do if we work together and that’s going to spawn all sorts of Co-Op initiatives. Youth will see an enterprise that reflects them and know what they can accomplish through hard work; even if they are not necessarily gifted musically or athletically.”
In addition to providing a necessary nutritional resource, Wright sees the Co-op changing the landscape of the lower East Side – by building a business that nurtures the surrounding community and is nurtured by that community. “We want to see children outside playing, teenagers going on dates and just being kids. Elderly people feeling safe to walk outside and just enjoy the day,” he said.
The Co-Op is growing quickly, and Wright sees their initial five-year business plan becoming a one-year plan. With that rapid progression comes a need for helping hands and donations to establish a brick-and-mortar facility. Their immediate needs are a space for pick-ups, a truck, and boxes and bags for distributing produce. They are also on the look-out for a space to set up their permanent facility. “We have everything the put inside of a store, but no where to put it,” Wright said.
Organizers are seeing their co-operative values manifesting in real progress. Members have already begun donating for a permanent facility, sharing ideas, and spreading the word. The Co-Op is looking to build its customer base, so those interested in buying in for a share or learning more about membership can visit the Facebook page, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 716-573-1844.