Buffalo supermarket targeted in mass shooting was oasis in a ‘food desert’

Tops Friendly on Jefferson Avenue in East Buffalo was more than just a grocery store. It served as community center, a place to hang out, a source of employment – and a spot for healthy sustenance unavailable at bodega stores in an area described as the oasis in a food desert.

In the three days since Tops became the carefully targeted site of a mass shooting and was closed indefinitely, community groups, local advocates, western New York’s emergency food network, corporate donors, churches and even Tops staff have scrambled to fill the gap.

“It was everything to us. It was the heart of Jefferson,” said Jeanette Simmons, a former Tops cashier who said she had left Tops on Saturday when she heard the first gunshots. Ever since, she was finding it hard to cope. “It’s been difficult to sleep, mangiare, shop – everything. He took everything from us.”

Simmons was standing in line at an emergency food distribution center run by the Resource Council of WNY and Feedmore WNY on Ferry Street, 10 minutes from Tops – which, although shuttered, had also set up a food distribution and counselling center nearby, and was offering a bus service to another location.

Simmons said she was worried about the store remaining closed, in part because of the stimulating effect it had on other local businesses. “They paved the way for us to have things on Jefferson. I loved everything about Tops. Some people can’t afford to go way out to get food.”

The site is currently an FBI crime scene. Given the death and devastation allegedly caused by the suspect Payton Gendron, some regular Tops clientele may not want to return.

“I don’t want to go back in there. I knew most of the people who worked there,” said Erma Ecford. “Friday he [Gendron] was in the store. He was right there by the water when I was getting my pop. If he did it then he would have taken a lot more people out, because the store was crowded.”

Police authorities have not confirmed that Gendron was in the store a day before the shooting, but Ecford’s account tallies with others in the neighborhood. Shonnell Harris Teague, a manager at Tops, claimed she saw Gendron sitting on a bench outside the store for several hours dressed in the same camouflage outfit he allegedly wore during the shooting.

And late on Saturday, just hours after the violence, Grady Lewis reported a similar account. “He looked out of place,” Lewis recalled. “He was a bit of strange kid. He said he was coming to see the countryside. He talked about string theory, critical race theory, shapeshifters, the beginning of civilization.”

Di lunedi, the Buffalo police commissioner, Joseph Gramaglia, confirmed that the suspect had visited the city in early March. Separately, a Washington Post review of more than 600 pages of messages attributed to Gendron reportedly showed he had resolved in December to kill those he slurred as “replacers”, and had decided in February to target Tops grocery store based on its local African American population.

Black residents in Buffalo are six times more likely than white neighbors to live in an area without a grocery store, secondo a 2018 rapporto from the Partnership for the Public Good that linked such “food deserts” to higher rates of disease. Terry King, chief executive of Saving Grace Ministries and board chair of the Resource Council, said that most Tops customers could not drive and “were isolated from what we would normally have for goods and services”.

“For two decades, before Tops was built 19 anni fa, the closest grocery store was five or six miles away. Without the ability to drive they were dependent on getting food from a local bodega or store at high prices – and not the most healthy of food. So they struggled,” King said.

“Tops represented something that was really important for healthy living.”

In the aftermath of the killings, Ecford and others reported that threats had been made against the community and local schools: she took her grandchild out of South Park academy after one call. “We still got people out there who want to retaliate,” said Ecford. “It doesn’t make sense. I’m a senior citizen and I ain’t going nowhere. I want to get in my house and be safe.”

Sherry Schenck, standing outside the Resource Center’s food bank with a bag of groceries, said she, pure, was “a little shaken”.

“We just ended the protests for Black Lives Matter, and now we have start it all over again," lei disse. “This guy literally drove 200 miles up here and went on a rampage, killing Black people. intendo, who does that? And now our community has to suffer because of him.”

Schenck said she was excited for the imminent visit of Joe Biden, and was considering what she might say, given an opportunity. “I would ask him how he’s going to change America, and especially in a city like this," lei disse.

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