Alexander J. Wright, JD is a University at Buffalo School of Law alum. He is the current President and founder of the African Heritage Food Co-Op, a non-profit organization created to address food insecurity in the city of Buffalo caused by systemic racism.
Hello and welcome to Buffalo HealthCast a podcast by students, faculty and staff of the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions, we’re your co-hosts, Tia Palermo, Jessica Kruger and Schuyler Lawson.
And in this podcast, we cover topics related to health equity here in Buffalo, around the US and globally. And this first semester, the podcast, we're taking a deeper look at racism and health.
We'll be talking to experts around the US as well as individuals here on campus and in the Buffalo community who are working to remove inequities to improve population, health and well-being. You'll hear from practitioners, researchers, students and faculty from other universities who have made positive changes to improve health, equity and inclusion.
Schuyler Lawson: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Buffalo HealthCast University, Buffalo's premier public health podcast. I'm your host, Schuyler Lawson. I'm a first year PhD candidate in the Department of Community Health and Health Program.
With us today is Alexander J Wright, the founder and president of the African Heritage Food Co-op. Thank you for taking the time to the interview today. Thank you. Let's go. We'll be glad to have you. And first off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Alexander Wright: Yeah, I was born in Buffalo, left when I was three, came back at 12 and went away to college at 18, came back at 20, and I've been here ever since, I have a bachelor's of science business management and I have a law degree from University of Buffalo's John Law O'Brien School of Law. I've always been community focused.
Schuyler Lawson: That's what I've heard about. People always end up coming back to Buffalo in your story kind of ties into that. I've heard that quite a bit. People leave and they end up coming back. So, yeah, my next question is, so what is the mission of the African Heritage Food Co-op?
Alexander Wright: The mission of the African Heritage Food Co-op is to eliminate food deserts and combat unemployment and price gouging, the inner city in particular.
Schuyler Lawson: And it's a that's a pretty noble mission. And that kind of leads into my next question. I'm glad you mentioned your you be your juris degree from now. UB school of law, correct? Yep. So how did that inform how does that inform the creation and the management of the American Heritage of Food Co-op that that type of education background?
Alexander Wright: I think see, law school teaches you one thing for three years for research.
Right. And critical thinking. So I think one of the things that helped me to be successful is when I have the ability to read my own contracts, I have the ability to create and negotiate and a lot of ways that I learned it to be. But also it increased my networking ability.
So because I'm able to see both sides of anything, that's one thing they force you to do your first year, your third year. They make you argue size that you're four in size this year gets to enable you to be able to understand, you know. So it allowed me to relate to folks I work with a lot of people who politically don't think like me. And I work with a lot of people who don't look like me.
But I have a skill set to where I can deal with everyone on a spectrum, whether you're, you know, if you support Trump, whether you are no matter who you are, I can sit down and have a conversation with you and find common ground.
And that's one thing I had to do, working out with local farmers. And as I'm driving out and I'm seeing Confederate flags, I'm seeing Trump support, I'm seeing, you know, don't tread on me.
And a lot of ultra nationalism, which a lot of times translates into overt racism for people of African descent. But we've been able to get through a lot of that stuff and be successful.
Schuyler Lawson: It's pretty interesting. How did that level of background translate into kind of a major sort of a diplomat in ways you're able to sort of reach out to people in ways that others would probably find unacceptable or very difficult? You're able to can you be able to reach a common ground by understanding that the point of view of the other and then it leads to partnership with someone that you're you may be diametrically opposed to as far as belief systems, whether it be political worldviews.
Alexander Wright: One of the things is there's the person and then there's the idea. And a lot of times we merged the two because you have this ideal, you're this kind of person. And in a lot of times that isn't the case. I mean, sometimes it is what a lot of times that in the case, some people have ideas because they're ignorant to other ideas that are there. Some people have belief systems because they were just taught that they didn't do any research.
So, you know, I always start off with this is a decent person, until they cheat, they show me otherwise and then we just go from there.
Schuyler Lawson: Well, so far, this leads into my next question. Actually, I'm so I'm wondering, what are some projects that the African Heritage Food Co-op has recently undertaken? One of the biggest things is just fighting hunger and covid we fed or about one hundred thousand families in 2020 who were really affected by losing jobs.
Or, you know, they say when America gets a cold, you know, poor folks get the flu. So covid has been difficult on a lot of people, but even more difficult on the people who are with you had it difficult.
So we're able to partner with organizations and projects like the Buffalo Health Equity Network,
the Independent Foundation and a health foundation to western New York excuse me, and many others. And we were able to get healthy food out to folks that didn't have it, so that's been a major focus of what we've been doing while building up our Niagara Falls store and renovating and putting together our Buffalo Carlton Street store as well.
So it's been a very, very busy time for us. And we're looking forward to continuing to work because, you know, we receive fanfare and some notoriety, but none of that means anything if we don't really have a functioning grocery stores in areas that have been victim of food apartheid.
Schuyler Lawson: So I'm just going to go into a little bit more detail about the Buffalo branch that's being built for the African Heritage Co-op. I know there’s one in Niagara Falls.
Alexander Wright: So in Buffalo, we acquired through a generous donation a historically a locally historically landmark building at 238 Carlton Street. It's an air of the fruit, though some like to refer to that area as a medical campus.
But it's the truth, though. It was a fruit built before it was a medical campus through the medical campus resides in the food. And the reason I'm so specific with language there is it's like saying Columbus discovered America, you know, and people were already here right before medical campus.
What was it? You know, where people there was just this barren place that nobody, nobody was in?
No. There are people there with a long, proud history.
Right. So I like to say that because that narrative is part of the institutional racism that that plagues our city. We received fifty thousand to restore it from the Buffalo Niagara Preservation Network. We were able to pay back some of that, which is good. We’re working with architects now. We have our external drawings. We're working on our internal drawings. Once we have internal drawings, we can start our official fundraising. Our fundraising was pushed back because of like a lot of ways you can work fundraisers is by having people come see the building, getting an understanding of what's going on, you know, and then they support one that, you know, 20, 30, 50 hundred people in the building. So that's why we wanted to wait until we had our interior designs so that we now people will be able to virtually walk through and actually see everything that's going to be there.
Schuyler Lawson: And this is this is a very ambitious project. And I think it's going to be a good location that would really benefit from that type of the type of resource you have to have a sort of an approximation of when it'll be completed or did the pandemic kind of throw things into sort of more uncertainty?
Alexander Wright: Yeah, the pandemic threw everything into, you know, we wanted 2021 what built and then go in this year. But obviously that's been pushed back. We're waiting on these internal drawings, hopefully what have them. I wanted to launch a fund raiser during Black History Month but is symbolic. It doesn't look like that's going to happen. The drawings are being perfected and approved. So once we do that, then we'll be ready to rock and roll.
But maybe we can do it in April, which people don't know. Black History Month started as a week in April. And then from there, February was chosen because of the birthdays that fall within February.
And it's a big I'm a big, big fan of Carter G Woodson and what he was able to do.
Schuyler Lawson: If I recall correctly, he's a black historian, correct?
Alexander Wright: Yes.
Schuyler Lawson: I'm glad you mentioned the pandemic. That kind of ties to another question that I had. And how is the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the way that you that you all run by African heritage. How was it had to evolve and what have you had to change to keep on providing those very essential services?
Alexander Wright: So we've revamped our website so people can now order online pretty quickly. They can also call in their orders. We're not taking people in the stores right now because of covid doing free delivery. So the only thing you have to pay for is actually your items. And we deliver right to your house.
Of course, we take all of our precautions. We have visors and masks and things like that.
We are essential workers. You know, when you work in grocery work, getting food, you're essential. And one of the things that we do differently for elders, you know, we come to the door and we see an elder there. We will bring it inside if you know, if that person wants that to happen and we'll put it on their counter for them so they don't have to then try to pick it up. And everything we try to do with care and with a purpose, a community for.
Schuyler Lawson: And can you tell us a bit about what type of type of products you offer on your deliveries?
Alexander Wright: Yeah, and we can basically source anything. It just is a matter of how long it takes. So how specific you are, on basic peppers, onions, potatoes, things like that that's 24 hours. It's not a problem.
We're not at the door dash, Instacart level where you go in and you get it in two hours, but you have it the next day. And that's for 90 percent of items. If you want, you know, organic, I don't know wolfbane or something, you know, something like exotic why would consider exotic, but I understand for some people that's not so I'm not saying that it's exotic. I'm just saying for me it is. That may take a couple of days, you know, we've got a relatively quick turnaround and everything and delivered right to your house and this is what we've been doing because our not the force store, if it's huge and you just can't I can't risk the safety of our employees and I can't risk the safety of the community being bunched up in here buying stuff or, you know, because when you're looking at producer, you know, if not, it's not a bang, bang, bang thing. People come in, they want to pick stuff up, feel it or have a conversation about it. Like it's just a real communal body produces a communal thing and it's just unsafe right now with the size of our store to have people walking in.
Schuyler Lawson: Yeah, that's definitely understandable. But it seems like you've still been able to make some great accomplishments in spite of the limitations that have been imposed by the pandemic. But I have another question. We're talking about, you know, making accomplishments. What would you say is the has been the greatest accomplishment of the African heritage food crop.
Alexander Wright: The greatest accomplishment of the African Heritage Food Co-op has been a couple of things that I see.
One hope I see other co-ops forming. I see other people selling produce that weren’t selling produce before in areas that they were going into before. So that's very exciting to me. I don't see that as competition. I see that as there are, you know, three hundred thousand people who need fresh fruits and vegetables. I would love to service them all. I don't have the capacity to do it.
So if you jump in with your food cart and you're making it happen and I think the black business bazaars that we've been able to institute now, we've gone away from those, you know, in the pandemic and in our sights. But I've seen people pick it up and do something like it, actually, a lot of people. So I'm very excited about that to feel a little bit like a trendsetter. You know, the beautiful thing about the black, this is bazaar as it was.
It was giving small businesses and tabletop folks an opportunity to come out and get exposure, new customers and put a focus on economics. So I was very excited when I saw the city of Buffalo to Buffalo to a black business week, which to my knowledge was not happening before us and before we were pushing the envelope on black business bazaars. So I'm really excited about people who are grabbing on and making that happen. And I think that's one of the biggest accomplishments to me, seeing folks catch on to the idea and putting their own spin on it and making it even, you know, even greater.
Schuyler Lawson: You can take pride in, you know, being the one that got the ball rolling, right? Yeah, it's like a kind of a pioneer in that respect.
OK, so I have another question for you. Can you talk more about your collaboration with the Lexington Co-op? That's a call that I'm sure many of our listeners know about.
Alexander Wright: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, there's a principle In cooperative's, where you have to help other cooperative's being like, you just have to they have held true to that even from our beginning, as far as they helped us immensely with our lawyer to incorporate. You know, they helped us with half of our consulting fee. We brought consultants in.
And I reached out to the general manager to allow a bunch when I have questions or I'm frustrated and I just want to flip the table over, you know, but not just [inaudible] co-op. Like we've reached out to [inaudible] in Pittsburgh.
We've reached out to. Co-ops in Oakland, California, visited co-ops out there. That's one of the things we did. We really did research and talk to a lot of folks, you know, and anybody who's like listening to this and starting something really, really do your research and talk to people about what? About what you want to do.
Schuyler Lawson: Yeah, yeah. I didn't know about that after the principle of co-ops had to help each other. And that's really a you know for sure.
Alexander Wright: And even just not just liked and didn't like the bread hive, which is toll on the grow operative, which is a co-op. You know, they have all done something to help us and other co-ops nationally. You know, somebody out there like I'll see a three hundred people donation some time from this co-op, most recently the Lexington they did for December.
I guess you can round up your purchases and raise money for an organization. They raised $10,000 for us. And what's beautiful about that money is. We were doing work with the county in the Buffalo Equity Network that covered until December.
So we're waiting to hear. If we're going to be refunded, well, we're just a vendor in it again and then hopefully they're funded again and they continue to use us as a vendor. But while we awaiting this, ten thousand is allowed us to keep going on in January, you know, so people didn't miss a beat while we're waiting on you hear from this funding and some other stuff, you know, to help those folks that just can't help themselves right now, OK?
Schuyler Lawson: So essentially, it's like a stopgap type of money.
Alexander Wright: Yeah, yeah. And I mean, they didn't know what to do before. We didn't know what it would before it got here. It just came right on time and allowed us to continue operations and feeding. We feed. 200-500 families, you know, and that doesn't include like our direct orders.
That's just the community stuff. And suppose that's a very generous offering.
Schuyler Lawson: I imagine it sounds more beneficial to many of the people that depend on your services.
Alexander Wright: We pull up and people are like, oh, the full people, what's going on?
Lady gave me a limbe, which is nice. If people don't know what I they are. That's flavor ice. And it's usually like for Puerto Rican and Hispanic, Latin American. Right, so we got the I got there were some photos and the lady was like, “oh, let me I got to give you something if you like.
What's the flavor you like?” I love that you really connect with folks throughout your community.
And I think that's one of the biggest things for me. When I just walk to the hood and people are like, Hey, Alex, man, you know, we appreciate what you do, and, you know, that's it, that's worth more to me than any award, you know, and being fiscally responsible, you know, for employees who are around the community like that. It's exciting to me to be able to do that. Yeah, that's, you know, it's there's only one.
Schuyler Lawson: Yeah. OK, so I got another question for you. This one's kind of broad, so I'm not, in your opinion, what are the biggest drivers of health disparities and what would it take to eliminate these?
Alexander Wright: First thing. Give the funding to the people in the community. I think one of the biggest mistakes that we continue to make is we'll give a million dollars to whatever.
OK, now they'll take that million dollars and they need a salary, somebody else's salary, somebody else needs a salary, somebody else's salary. So you mess around, you have 10 salaries out of those 10 salaries. They have one person who may represent the community and be your community liaison.
Right? Well, what happens is. That black face that they find, is rarely actually connected to the community. Right, and they just assume that because this person is black, that this person is going to connect with the community. You know, that just happened in Washington was black and that's kind of black person. A lot of times these companies, these organizations want to bring to my neighborhood and then they don't think like me. They don't have my same experience. They don't understand what's what. And then there's a disconnect. If people like, well, we hired a community liaison who we are a diversity coordinator, and they in the community and the community just doesn't want to work with them because we have this guy where you come from.
Why are you my face? What should happen is, all right, here's a problem that's affecting the community. Is there anyone in the community already working on this problem? So we're going to put funds into capacity building and helping that institution, that organization or those people build out the word continue out the work.
Right. And not just on, here's a grant that's heavily restricted. Right. Here's a grant that's not heavily restricted. You're also a CPA who is also an accountant. Right. Because the other thing that people don't help you with, you know, here's a grant, but you know what I'm saying?
Schuyler Lawson: They don't need know how to manage it. Right, in these things that you need.
Alexander Wright: Right. So, you have a lot of people who are doing good work, who aren't getting funding coming out of their pocket or they get a little bit of funding? Right. But then they're trying to figure out, OK, what's the paperwork? How can I write?
So what happens if people, again, with the education, with connections, with the application for protection and they get this lump sum of funds and they use it how they see fit? A lot of times on salary, a lot of times on just things that are going to, you know, make me look not racist because I'm going to shake hands and pretend like everything is good. Right. And our institutions do this our foundations do this a lot.
And it's one thing we do. You want to solve the problem, don't you? That's really what it feels like. You know, we spend or they'll give people give a hundred thousand dollars to do a feasibility study or here's is a hundred thousand dollars to go and do surveys in the community.
And now you're paying all the students 15 bucks an hour to go out there and knock on doors.
You're paying people to do whatever. Right. So now the money's gone and you have this data, which is great, you know, for people who are becoming PhDs, which is before schools and papers and articles and that kind of stuff. Right. So now you have this beautiful article, well written. Awesome.
Who's going to be read by academics who are going to study it, have a think tank about it, get some more funding to look at it, write a book about it. And all this time, people are dying, people are starving, people are right. So we just wasted billions of dollars on an academic boondoggle.
That's problematic, is problematic. So how we how do we change it? We start being smart who's doing it? Or if no one is doing it, who can do it? There's this documentary called Solar Mamas, Women who were from the Middle East and North Africa who were illiterate. It took them to London for six months, taught them solar power to bring back to their villages. Right. They became solar engineers, people who were illiterate. Abusing those cultures in silence in those cultures and those women became engineers, so you can't tell me if you can do that.
You can't take Leroy in the Keysha who made it to high school. Right. Teach them give them an opportunity to do the same thing. Right. They can bag up produce, they can weigh produce, they can deliver produce, right. We don't need an organization to come from somewhere else into our neighborhood to do that. Put the money into the people who are already there, allow them to build themselves up. That's how you change the community and that's how in the health. Is it just. My body, if it's connected to me economically, so now, OK, he should keep his job, my daughter Keysha’s job is to do fruits and vegetables.
OK, I'm a it. I know that she gets paid. I'm a go ahead and get some right here because we're going to do the same things. Other people actually do the same thing. Oh, man. All right. Well, support. We got to support our own line to go, OK.
So that's one now you get grandma to throw some of those things in the pot. Whip it up right now. Oh, man, this is good, Grandma. This is what is this kale? What is what is this?
So then you have the economic portion that you have the portion of somebody cooking it, making it taste good. Right. And you start with the fruits and vegetables that people are already eating. What happens is, is we roll up with the acorn squash boom, acorn squash or like what the what?
I don't. I don't. What is this? I don't cook with this. Right. But if you're a culturally relevant culturally, if you understood, you might. OK, what can you do? The sweet potato? What can you do with a regular white potato which everybody eats. Right. What can you do with a green pepper, which everybody how does onion. Everybody like those onions. So there's things that everyone does, the things that are more culturally relevant. So figure that out, which isn't hard. Call me. I'll tell you right for me, call Alice, call Rita Hubbard. Robinson, call. There are people who are doing this food work.
Right, right. So I don't want to come off as frustrated because I'm not necessarily, well, a little frustrated. But I just see, it's like if you see the solution, right, I really feel like I have the solution. You work with the people who are here, but because those are the people that are going to stay.
Right. That's the same thing with the solar mom thing.
Schuyler Lawson: The reason for the true stakeholder's right, the reason they dealt with women,
because women stay in the village, raise their family, they're going to be here. Right. So that's what the same thing you do, these folks that are here, because we're the only folks that can do it with any longevity.
What happens is you have a great executive director of a great foundation, right? And until that person runs for senator or until that person wants a family or until that person, whatever that person does, everything seems good.
But because it's not in the next person who doesn't see the community focus or what happens is there are hot items. So one year is full justice. Next year, it's human trafficking. Next year, you know, it's STEM programs, right. So what's hot and what's funded, you know, that goes around, but it doesn't go.
OK. Oh, we fix food insecurity. So now let's move on, nothing gets fixed. Nothing gets fixed.
Nothing. That's the problem, man, like we throw money at this thing, we take pictures, we write journals, and then we blow away as if people who were struggling aren't still struggling.
Schuyler Lawson: Yes, so I see this all essentially a lack of continuity.
Alexander Wright: Lack of continuity and a lack of proper placement of funds. You know, and when they do give someone who is in the club some funding, it comes with zip ties, handcuffs, ropes, oh, you know, oh, well, if you spend $10,000, then we'll give you $10,000.
If I had $10,000 to spend. Why would I be here? Anyway, next question, I think I've been on this, I've harped on this one a while.
Schuyler Lawson: So this response, the kind of I mean, it's not something that can be necessarily summed up in just a few sentences, and I think that sort of passion to try to encapsulate it all, the kind of the continued failures of institutions to address the issue properly.
We thank you for your response. So I'm hoping that at least to my last question. Is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners? Anything.
Alexander Wright: Yeah. There are a lot of things you can do to help. But always help in dignity. People that you want to help are not children, they don't need you to change them and wipe their bottoms and come to them with a with a condescending tone or attitude. This also doesn't mean that you have to walk on eggshells. Be real, be authentic, be upfront with your ignorance, because you have some, I promise you, and be willing to learn from the people you're trying to work with as you're trying to impart whatever you're trying to impart.
Schuyler Lawson: Wise words.
Alexander Wright: So that's it. OK.
Schuyler Lawson: Thank you. Thank you for that reply and thanks again for taking the time to be on our podcast. We want to we hope to have you on again to discuss your future projects.
And is there any way, is there where our listeners can learn more about the African heritage food co-op?
Alexander Wright: Definitely can. You can check this out at https://myahfc.com.
Check us out on Facebook, African Heritage Food Co-op. We're the only one.
And the new initiative for Legacy Farms, where we're leasing out plots of farmland for community folks to come out and grow in. The co-op is going to purchase the stuff that they grow to do an economic infusion into those homes. And you can find out about that. Legacy farms, that or legacy farms on Facebook.
Schuyler Lawson: Again, the only one thank you for sharing that has been another episode of Buffalo HealthCast. Tune in next time to hear more about health equity in Buffalo, the US and around the globe.