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The importance of a grocery store

Supermarkets are centers of culture and community. In America, that also makes them targets.

People embraced Sunday outside the parking lot of a Tops Friendly Markets grocery store where 10 people were killed on Saturday in Buffalo.Joshua Rashaad McFadden/NYT

On Saturday, just as I was heading to the grocery store, the news broke. Ten people at the Tops Friendly Market on Buffalo’s East Side, a predominantly Black neighborhood, had been murdered. Their killer, a white man, drove 3½ hours from his hometown near Binghamton to shoot them down with an AR-15 he had modified to make it as deadly as possible. If there were any doubts as to his intentions, he posted a manifesto citing the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory — far from new (as writer Kaitlyn Greenidge points out on Twitter, Tom Buchanan extols its precepts in “The Great Gatsby”) except for in its public embrace by the mainstream Republican party, at least some of which is apparently not just willing but eager to say the quiet part out loud.

In this manifesto, the killer described his methodology in matter-of-fact language: He searched for the ZIP code with the highest concentration of Black people, sought out a grocery store within that ZIP code, and figured out its busiest times.

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The Tops market on Jefferson Avenue isn’t just any market. In a deeply segregated city, in a neighborhood that is a food desert, it is the primary place to shop. It opened in 2003 after residents fought for a grocery store for more than a decade. Before that, according to NPR, food activist Della Miller would set up a stand in the area to sell produce: “Cases of greens and tomatoes and peppers and we would actually sell them on the street. That was how desperate we were to get fresh produce,” she said. Now this neighborhood essential is closed until further notice, per a statement from Tops, which says it is continuing to pay affected staff and providing customers free shuttles to another branch about 5 miles away.

Immediately after the shooting, it became clear that this particular Tops is the center of its community, a place where everyone knows one another, a place to socialize as well as buy food. Locals posted loving, heartfelt, grief-laden remembrances of Kat Massey, a civil rights advocate who wrote a letter to The Buffalo News a year ago calling for measures to curb gun violence; Aaron Salter Jr., the security guard and longtime Buffalo police officer who tried to stop the shooter; Pearly Young, who ran a food pantry every Saturday for 25 years.

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“Buffalo is so much home for me that not only is my heart broken right now I’m sick to my stomach waiting for texts to make sure my people and their people are okay,” tweeted news anchor and investigator Madison Carter, who left her previous beat in Buffalo for Atlanta last year and returned to cover the story.

This is the importance of a grocery store.

“Sometimes it’s hard to fully understand how much a food store means to a community until it leaves,” says Doug Rauch, founder and president of nonprofit market Daily Table, which has branches in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Central Square, Cambridge. He calls food inequity a pernicious problem in a country where food policy tends to be shortsighted, subsidizing special interests rather than prioritizing people’s health. “There is no better form of health care than good nutrition,” he says. “Nutrients are expensive in America and calories tend to be cheap.” Grocery stores create jobs, often hiring from the neighborhoods in which they are located. They offer a sense of place you can’t get from the Internet.

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That’s what makes the scenario in Buffalo all too easy for anyone to imagine. Like me, perhaps like you, people headed to the market on a Saturday afternoon, the kind of routine errand one hardly gives a thought to. They showed up for their shifts. They stopped in to grab something quick, like the cake that victim Andre Mackneil was buying for his son’s third birthday that day. Grocery stores are central to our lives in the way few other institutions are today. And each one has its own culture. At the Roche Bros. in West Roxbury, longtime residents bump into each other and share the gossip from Holy Name, St. Theresa’s. At Tropical Foods (a.k.a. El Platanero) near Nubian Square, people stock up on Nigerian spices and Caribbean produce and every Goya product imaginable (and, of course, plantains). At Truong Thinh II in Dorchester, shoppers peruse shelves filled with fish sauce, rice noodles, and vegetables used in Vietnamese cooking. This should be seen as beautiful: The different ways that culture blossoms are reflections of our humanity. But because this Tops market serves Buffalo’s Black community, it became a target.

No accident. Last year, during a wave of anti-Asian violence in this country, the owner of Asian Grocery in Charlotte was shot in the chest. (Authorities said the incident may not have been racially motivated, but an attack in the same city a week earlier on a Korean-owned convenience store by a man wielding a metal bar and screaming racial slurs certainly was.) In 2019, 23 people were murdered and dozens more injured in an El Paso Walmart popular with Mexicans crossing the border from Juarez; the shooter, who drove 10 hours to his destination, also cited the great replacement theory. Later that same year, three shoppers were shot dead at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey.

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Politicians like Representative Elise Stefanik of New York and media figures like Fox News host Tucker Carlson have normalized and centered racist and other discriminatory thinking. This places a mark on the back of anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow, misbegotten notions of who belongs in America — which is increasingly, to their fear and chagrin, most of us. And those who wish to take aim know where we shop.

“The truly saddest part of what happened in Buffalo is that we all need food to eat,” says Rauch. “People went in for a basic human right, to get something to feed their family, and it wasn’t safe.”


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.