Hungry? Buy Local

Buffalo's West Side currently has a $40 million annual economic impact on Erie County, and that is without Buffalo consumers, business owners, and distributors consciously trying to push their city's economy forward.

The Buffalo Food Policy Summit, an official event of Inauguration Week, was a two-day symposium that focused on the role of the local food system in Buffalo's economy. Samina Raja, Ph.D., who is an associate professor in the department of urban and regional planning and one of the experts at the summit, said that like other communities across the country, Buffalo has the food system and networks to generate a higher food-based economic multiplier. Raja has been determined for the past ten years—since she moved to Buffalo—to see the city's food system become a major engine for economic development.

"We might not think of the West Side as a place that can be an economic driver. But, with [the area's] current food businesses as they are, [those alone] manage to have a $40 million impact," Raja said. "So, can we imagine what those businesses would do for Erie County if we supported them."

Jessie Gouck, who received her masters in urban planning from UB in 2010 and now works for the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Initiative in Buffalo, attended one of the summit events on South Campus.

"We have existing infrastructure in place that gives us great potential for growing our food system," Gouck said. "So that is not only on the production side – we have lots of opportunity through vacant lands in the city of Buffalo to continue to produce food – but we also have existing opportunities for food processing, for food distribution, and for shoring up our retail operations."

Gouck sees Buffalo as a city that can build itself around its food system and can get healthier foods into "mom and pop" grocery stores.

"There is an opportunity to work with those small grocers to increase their capacity to sell healthy food, and if they're able to add to their store stock and increase their sales in revenue, in turn they will be able to hire more people, increase their revenue, and become more savvy," Gouck said.

Raja pointed out that Buffalonians are not spending enough money on local fruits and vegetables. Collectively, the city of Buffalo spends more than $500 million annually on food. Approximately $20 million is spent on fruit, according to Raja.

"Erie County farmers are only selling about $6 million worth of fruit," Raja said. "So obviously, Buffalonians are also buying fruits from many other places. If we could figure out a way to connect the two, it would be good for our farmers; it would also be good for our people."

Raja explained that economic development does not simply rely on the consumer supporting the local business. Local food companies in Buffalo need more business so they can support the local distributors. Accordingly, both the businesses and distributors can then afford to hire more people and create more job opportunities, collectively driving Buffalo's economy.

Steve Richael, a salesman at Will Poultry, a local meat distribution company, places it upon himself to always build relationships with his customers, because of tough competition from corporate distributors.

"If you take a business like U.S. Foods who is a countrywide business, they have a buying power to buy trainloads of a product which in turn they get a better price on because they're buying it in bulk," Richael said. "Whereas with us, we can only afford to buy a truckload, which you'll not get as good of a price.

"You do whatever you can to service [customers] to the best of your ability. And in return, you try to gain that loyalty from your customer, so [even] if you're a couple cents more, they'll still buy from you."

Richael exemplifies what comes with buying local—not only does a business, consumer, and a distributor benefit economically, but the community itself gains tremendously— with a new sense of health and a friendlier sense of community.