Buffalo residents in a neighborhood dubbed a “food desert” will have healthier and affordable options to choose from thanks to a new partnership between the private sector, UB and community leaders.
Project Rainfall, a food system social enterprise in Buffalo’s Northland Corridor, was spearheaded by NeuWater and Associates chief executive Rita Hubbard-Robinson.
The Northland Corridor, a project under the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, is redeveloping numerous properties in the Northland Avenue Belt Line Corridor. The project’s goal is to renovate properties while revitalizing surrounding neighborhoods and provide employment opportunities to residents.
Project Rainfall will be in a new building at the Houde Engineering Complex and Factory at 537 East Delavan Ave. in Buffalo’s East Side. The surrounding area lacks a supermarket or a place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. The building is located directly in between a McDonald’s and a KFC.
In the next two years, Hubbard-Robinson will transform the old warehouse into an affordable farmer’s market.
Two thirds of the 40,000-square foot building will serve as a hydro and aquaponics farm, growing fresh fruits and vegetables. The remaining space will feature an indoor-outdoor farmer’s market, an educational kitchen, a multi-purpose room and a storeroom for the food grown on site. Eventually, a wellness center will offer residents easy access to healthcare and dieticians.
Much of the food grown will be sold to restaurateurs and wholesalers, allowing revenue to provide healthy living and wellness classes and services to include community and family cooking classes and other nutritional workshops, according to Hubbard-Robinson.
Hubbard-Robinson said Project Rainfall is an ambitious project and is hoping to avoid gentrification. She’s aware of what’s happened to many downtown areas as high-end renovations are made and is confident this will only benefit nearby neighborhoods.
“It’s a two-fold problem: you want people to be interested, but people who have been here and suffered through the disinvestment, they shouldn’t be punished by more expenses,” Hubbard-Robinson said. “We haven’t done anything without the community, nor has Northland Corridor. We’ve been very involved with [the] Buffalo Urban Development Corporation to make sure that this is the right plan for helping this area.”
During his State of the City address Thursday, Mayor Byron Brown announced that the project received backing from the National Invest Health Initiative. Buffalo is one of 50 cities to receive funding from the organization.
UB students and faculty helped plan the project’s development, from business plans to designs for on-site solar panel farms.
The participating departments included graphic design, architecture, urban and regional planning, community health and health behavior and management.
Hubbard-Robinson laid the foundation for the vision in 2009. She hopes to open the building in two years and reach a break-even point in four. She said by building the space, she hopes to change the eating patterns of residents in the area who typically have a poor diet filled with processed and fast food.
“When you start peeling back the layers of this problem, you see that the main problems surround public health,” Hubbard-Robinson said. “We’re talking about cultural norms stemming from poverty and access. Looking at the nexus of unhealthy food and unhealthy eating, it’s not going to be easy to make a change. If you don’t have access to something, you can’t create behaviors around it, especially if what you can access is only fatty foods with high sodium and sugar.”
Heather Orom, assistant dean for the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Department, said roughly half of the people living near the Northland Corridor make an annual income of under $25,000. Because of monetary restrictions, many people can’t afford to live a healthy lifestyle.
Orom is also a professor for the department of Community Health and Health Behavior. Her students worked with Hubbard-Robinson in 2011 on the Grider Health assessment, which involved interviews with 100 residents of a neighborhood near the project site to assess residents’ health issues and access to health care.
“Many [students] went door-to-door and led community talk back events,” Orom said. “We found really high rates of chronic disease –– 57 percent had high blood pressure, 16 percent had diabetes and 23 percent had asthma. Rates for New York State are 26, 9 and 15, respectively.”
The assessment prompted Hubbard-Robinson to take action.
Ever since, she’s envisioned making the community healthier while working within a tight budget. Students and faculty in UB’s MBA program created a business plan for the project that will keep the prices of site-grown food reasonable. Farmers will also be invited to sell their own crops at the site.
Students in a studio lab at the School of Architecture worked to develop a community solar project with the Northland Beltline Community Taxpayers’ Association that would, in part, help Project Rainfall reduce energy costs associated with growing food, along with reducing energy costs for the residents.
Zoe Hamstead, a professor in the urban and regional planning department, said her department got involved with Project Rainfall in the fall after winning a $1 million grant from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's “Energy to Lead” competition. After working with UB sustainability officials to survey where they could best spend the money in Buffalo, Hubbard-Robinson and Hamstead decided solar energy could be a great way to offset the cost of Project Rainfall.
“There’s so much potential for community solar energy. We can set up panels at the building and sell it offsite, engaging in financial transactions to support the project,” Hamstead said. “If the community is interested in co-developing the solar panels, not only will it help offset the project’s cost, but the community could reduce their own energy bills.”
Hamstead said she plans on conducting workshops with residents to educate them about solar energy. She acknowledged that there are many misconceptions about the panels and said community feedback is important since locals will ultimately be the ones utilizing the building.
“We’re going to see what the community reaction is like, see what designs they like and how comfortable they feel with utilizing this energy in their own homes,” Hamstead said. “If we can identify people in the community who are excited and provide training for them on community solar, they can take it forward and reuse the material and education for future generations.”
For Hubbard-Robinson, the finished product can’t come quick enough. After helping with Community Health Education and Outreach at ECMC on Buffalo’s East Side for six years, she said she is eager for investment in the area.
“Access to healthy food is a serious problem on the East Side of the city. If there is no access to healthy food, the customs surrounding healthy behaviors are difficult to be cultivated,” Hubbard-Robinson said. “Buffalo's East Side has been considered underdeveloped so it's exciting to see them receive this amazing opportunity. Health outcomes have an adverse impact on our workforce, family stability and social norms. Creating a project that will help turn the tide is timely.”
Max Kalnitz is a news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.