Growing up on Buffalo’s East Side, Alexander Wright remembers being sent to get groceries.
“My mom would give me $5 and a list, and, at around 12 years old, I became aware of food prices and money worries,” he said.
As a big kid living in tough neighborhoods, he had to fight to defend himself. Then, through the Buffalo Prep program — because he was economically disadvantaged and excelled academically — he was able to attend Nichols for high school.
“It was culture shock. During part of my senior year, my family was living in a Salvation Army shelter,” said Wright. “The neighborhood around Nichols was bright and green; back where I lived, things always seemed darker.”
Wright, 38, who went on to earn a business degree from Fairfield University and a law degree from UB, is soft-spoken, direct and passionate. And now, after a lifetime of community work, he’s founded the African Heritage Food Co-op.
Since 2016, the AHFC has been marketing a food share, through which people pay a monthly fee and in return receive a box (or a half-box) of mostly locally produced and sourced fruit and vegetables. Wright has plans to increase the non-profit business even more: establish a brick-and-mortar store and community and production center, grow food, and hire and train people from the community.
On a tour of Buffalo’s East Side — the “food desert” — he points out the meager options for locals to purchase fresh, well-priced food. Both the proverbial corner stores and the few larger grocery stores (all usually owned by those from outside the community) carry smaller selections of fresh fruits and vegetables, at higher prices, than areas with easier access to stores like Wegmans, Tops or a large co-op.
Wright was moved to put his effort into community and food after seeing a woman at one of those corner stores. When she asked for a pen to sign her food stamps, the proprietor threw it at her; Wright determined to start there.
He read up on civil rights movements and realized that growing leaders was an important goal.
“This needs to be sustainable. Our mission includes combatting price gouging as well as unemployment. Our store will hire people in our population who have real value and need better opportunities to change their lives, like youth, those out of prison, veterans, single parents. We want to pay a living wage,” said Wright.
He immediately started collaborating with existing groups to avoid duplicating work, to get the word (and the food) to people who want and need it.
Through organizations like ECMC, Gerard Place, Greater Buffalo United Accountable Healthcare Network (GBUAHN), Independent Health Foundation’s Good for the Neighborhood, and West Side Community Center, the AHFC accesses people and communities via mobile markets, special events and farmer’s markets.
Fredricka Barton was an early supporter — after hearing Wright speak at a community forum, she signed up on the spot. The food has had a huge impact on both lifestyle and literal health. “I was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure,” said Barton. “I didn’t pay attention when my doctor suggested lowering it through diet. My husband and I used to go to Burger King every day! Now that I cook more at home, and eat healthier, it’s gone down.”
While there were challenges, Barton rose to meet them. “When we first got the box, there were vegetables that I never heard of, like kale,” she said. “So, I started a Facebook group for people to post recipes, links to websites to get recipes or learn how to preserve vegetables.”
She involved her adult kids as well. “My daughter used to eat more sweets. Now, she gets the boxes too, and she’s eating healthier,” Barton said.
Alex Wright sees strong hope for his organization’s future — in the bigger picture, he’s seeking to incorporate programs that foster youth self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship. He also hearkens to his positive memories of food, emphasizing the deep links between food, meals, family, health, well-being and culture.
“As a kid playing sports on the streets, the rule was that I had to be home by the time the streetlights came on,” he added. “Dinner would be there, maybe with mashed potatoes and gravy. They’d be a little lumpy — when things are natural and homemade, they’re not always perfectly smooth and processed.”