Friday, January 13, 2017

The Buffalo Billion’s missing ingredient

At his recent regional State of the State address held at the University of Buffalo, Governor Andrew Cuomo touted the Buffalo Billion Part 2, a collection of 25 publically-aided projects that will allegedly grow and inspire the local economy.

As with the first installment of the Billion, the focus was on manufacturing, healthcare and life sciences, tourism, and infrastructure. While most of the lager sectors of the economy had a gift thrown their way, one of WNY’s most significant remained conspicuously absent from these economic development plans – agriculture.

At first glance, that makes sense, because the announced goal of the Buffalo Billion was to excite some of the destitute urban areas in Buffalo and Niagara Falls in an effort to help those city centers rise from the ranks of rust belt ghost towns. Rural WNY got the short shrift under such a concept. Plus, with hundreds of individual farms in the area, how do you invest in something that wouldn’t benefit a few but could benefit all? 

But, if you look at the human aspect of the Buffalo Billion – that is, by investing in the region you can help improve the socioeconomic status people living in the urban areas – there’s a way that local ag can be tied into it for the betterment of many.

Currently, various hardscrabble neighborhoods in the Queen City and the Falls are bereft of access to produce. Called “food deserts” by urban planners, those communities-within-a-community don’t have farmers markets -- let alone grocery stores in most cases -- and residents have to rely on whatever is in walking distance or near a public transit stop (and carrying groceries on a bus is no easy task). Because of the reliance on small marts and convenience stores, those families are left to diets of processed foods and canned goods, with fresh fruit and vegetables being a rarely enjoyed nicety. It’s no wonder that poor neighborhoods have unconscionably high rates of diabetes and heart disease.

Food deserts have not only created a public health crisis but they also drain the economy because those who live in food deserts are likely to be Medicaid recipients, and the outlays of public funds to address their illnesses are incredible.

Administrators of the Buffalo Billion could address the health of those residents and the economy by tackling the root cause of this situation – lack of access to healthy foods and the inability of local farms to get good foods to those who need it most.

An appropriate use of state economic funds would be the development of sustainable, year-long cooperatives and/or farmers markets with SNAP (food stamp) compliance strategically staged in the various food deserts. Those oases would provide the neighboring populations with healthy foodstuff and ingredients within reach of their homes.

There are many successful examples of such public-private initiatives that can be found across the country.

The East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh was created by a Steel City ministry to address their food deserts –  it serves 11,000 households and has 90 employees. The Hendersonville, North Carolina co-op saw a 2016 expansion that allows the health food store to serve 2,800 member homes. The New Orleans Food Co-Op opened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and makes produce available to its 3,700 limited-income members.

There are dozens more examples of programs successfully combatting food deserts in cities similar in economic make-up to ours. Local city and state officials wouldn’t necessarily have to re-invent the wheel, they could learn from and feed off the successes of those markets.

But, it takes a considerable initial investment to make such programs work. Building and marketing a dozen stores selling locally-grown produce in poverty-stricken areas of WNY? That’s chump change to something that touts itself as a billion dollar initiative.

Are you listening, Albany? There are a lot of Western New Yorkers hungry for change…but there are many more who are just plain hungry.       

From the 16 January 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

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