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Mike Zak Worker Owner at Gro-operative Inc. Farmer, Educator & Advocate

A cooperatively community owned, environmentally sustainable food system for the Buffalo- Niagara region of New York State.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Gro-operative Inc.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Farmer Co-op or Farmer Business Organization

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

African Heritage Food Co-op - Community Owned Grocery Stores and economic empowerment initiative. Groundwork Buffalo - Non-profit agricultural education organization for at-risk youth.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Buffalo, New York

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Buffalo-Niagara Region of New York State

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We were born and raised in Buffalo NY. Many of us have lived here for generations and have extended family that live in Buffalo or the surrounding areas of Western NY. We know the beauty that Buffalo has to offer as a cultural center and ecological hub in the Great Lakes Region. We have a proud history of being a main pathway of the underground railroad and stomping grounds of many of the great jazz legends. Buffalo has a rich history of immigrants settling here to create a thriving community for their family and future generations. From the large emigration of Poles, Italians, Germans and Irish in the early 20th Century to the more recent influx of refugees from across the globe, there are over 80 languages spoken in Buffalo. We have a vibrant diversity of ideas and the initiative to see them through. We also have the solemn responsibility of protecting our watershed that provides clean water and habitat to Lake Erie and Ontario. Buffalo has a thriving music and arts scene that is strengthened by our commitment to higher learning with our many Universities and Colleges. There is vast opportunity to build on our strengths that we must create a future that is uniquely built on our food system. Our recent surge of urban farming, breweries and distilleries, farm to table restaurants, and advocacy for a just transition to ecological sustainability is proof that our future is that which creates and sustains us, our food.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Buffalo’s East side was laid bare by the destruction of dilapidated houses. There are hundreds of vacant City lots that provide a large opportunity to create our own future of farming. Fifteen Urban Farms have started in the last ten years alone and more are on the horizon. Several Indoor Vertical Farms and Aquaponic Farms have also risen from the ashes of our hollowed out industrial past. There is great potential to educate and empower our youth to take up the farming trade as a source of economic prosperity.

Buffalo’s diversity of new and old immigrants has given rise to hundreds of unique restaurants that infuse dishes from Burma, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Poland, India, Italy, Jamaica, Yemen, and many more into new tastes and styles. Because of the multitude of tastes from around the world there is great need for produce that can’t be obtained locally to be grown within our city. We have also seen an exponential rise in the number of breweries, distilleries, and fermenters of all stripes who crave locally made food to imbue their products with local flair.

We are re-building our City to enrich our diverse community with jobs and ownership of their food through farming, retail grocery, value added production and prepared food businesses. This future will be powered by renewable energy and ecologically sustainable business practices. Best yet is that this resurgence will be cooperatively owned by its residents.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

We are focused on the future of Buffalo NY because we are life-long residents. We grew up in a City ravaged by de-industrialization, racism, and disenfranchisement. Our generation of Millennials has made it our goal to collectively rebuild Buffalo into a City that flourishes because of its diversity and not despite it. Decades of segregation and industrial decline has led to large portions of our City becoming a Food Apartheid. The health of the Black and Brown communities has precipitously declined due to institutional racism and poverty.

We grew up in a Buffalo that offered little opportunity and generational poverty as the steel industry moved abroad. Once the Buffalo public schools were desegregated, the white residents fled to the suburbs, bringing many of the jobs with them. In combination with Federal housing funding that focused on White Americans and redlining by banks, Buffalo’s Black and Brown residents had little opportunity to achieve the American dream. Today much of the City lives at or below the federal poverty line and that is severally prominent in communities of color. According to USA Today, Buffalo is ranked the 21st most segregated City in the USA. This decades long segregation and disinvestment in communities of color coupled with the crack epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s has decimated the City’s East and West sides leading to 10,000 homes being demolished since 2000. With no economic opportunity for communities of color, access to nutritious food followed, leading to staggering rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Our local food web is stymied by our short growing season and our surrounding rural areas primarily focused on cash crops such as corn and soy. There is not enough organic locally grown food to support a healthy diet for our residents. Our lack of local resiliency leads to sourcing our food from across the planet there by leading to ever growing climate change from the large amount of food miles tied to our consumption. We are fortunate enough to be near the great lakes which would enable us to create large bountiful harvests of food if we invest in our agricultural infrastructure. Our location also makes us resilient to climate change overall which will give rise to climate refugee’s in the decades to come. With the estimated migration of climate refugee’s we need to be even more focused on how we will provide sustainable food.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision of Buffalo is a food system that is owned and operated by the community. We are working to create urban farming, retail grocery, prepared food, restaurants, and education programs that is owned by our community. Gro-operative Inc. (Gro-op) is an Aquaponic Vertical Farm that grows fresh organic produce indoor year-round. We grow food in an environmentally sustainable way that uses 90% less water and 80% less nutrients than conventional farms. Since we are indoors, we can supply food when outdoor farms can’t and we use all renewable energy to power our facility. We are a Worker Owned Cooperative where the workers democratically control the business and share in the profits based on their work. We partner with local non-profits like Groundwork Buffalo and Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) to teach at-risk youth from Buffalo’s East and West side about Urban Agriculture and Cooperative Economics so they will become the next generation of farmers and cooperative stake holders. We also partner with the African Heritage Food Co-op (AHFC) to distribute our fresh food to communities of color in Buffalo’s East Side and Niagara Falls. We share a building AHFC and partner on education initiatives to train the communities youth in both production and distribution of their communities’ food. We work with MAP and their Commercial Kitchen to collectively make prepared foods with their students in order to sell to our community. Gro-op works with MAP on their urban farms and greenhouses on previous vacant lots in Buffalo to help grow ingredients for our value-added foods and create more education opportunities. Gro-op is also is a member of an urban farming cooperative called Farmer Pirates. We collectively make 8 individual urban farms spread throughout the city with a composting business that collects food scraps from local businesses and colleges to create our crops nutrition locally.

Through the above listed partnerships and with local schools, colleges and non-profits our collective goal is to create a food web that grows all the organic environmentally sustainable food that the Buffalo Niagara region needs. The wealth created from our local food web will enrich our communities of color as we are worker owned and member owned cooperatives. The Black and Brown communities that have been most adversely affected by the prevalent food apartheid will have the power of cooperative ownership of this new food web so we may overturn decades of decline. We are also focused on organizing and advocacy around climate change and pollution with our partners at Open Buffalo, People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo, Clean Air Coalition and The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeepers.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The Buffalo Niagara region will have a thriving urban agricultural economy. Cooperatively owned farms, grocery stores and restaurants will fill the once vacant land and businesses that comprised Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Economic prosperity abounds the once segregated and gentrified neighborhoods through cooperative business ownership and community-controlled initiatives. Investment into renewable energy has replaced our dependence on coal and natural gas and shifted the Buffalo Niagara region to 90% solar, wind, bio-gas and hydroelectric power. Our population is growing, and poverty is decreasing below 5% of the population. Our dynamic food industry has inspired our newest generation to develop innovative technologies to recycle waste from across the planet and use it to produce ground breaking products that will move us towards a sustainable earth.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision of the Buffalo Niagara region for 2050 is first and foremost a place where black and brown communities have economic prosperity and opportunity in major part to our thriving interconnected food economy. Neighborhoods in Buffalo and Niagara Falls that have been poverty stricken for generations will have ample work available as owners in agricultural cooperatives and the ancillary business that stem from the agrarian community. There will be an abundance of grocery stores, restaurants, prepared foods production and distribution businesses that are owned and operated by the communities of colors that once did not have such an opportunity. The disproportionate health risks that once plagued black and brown folks due to lack of fresh produce for miles in any direction will evaporate due to community ownership of farms and food businesses. The food created by these businesses will enable all residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and suburbs to eat local fresh food and spur and economic surplus due to keeping our dollars in our community. 

Through partnerships with local schools, colleges, non-profits and anchor institutions we will invest in our youth to teach them the skills needed to continue growing our cooperative food future. Technology companies will work hand in hand with advocacy groups and politicians to innovate and create new environmentally sustainable methods to shape our food future. Renewable energy will help drive our economic upturn by the demand from our generations of educated youth, now adults, for a fossil fuel free economy. Installation and manufacturing of solar, wind, and bi-gas power will employ thousands of people. 

Buffalo Niagara will be the hub of dynamic food growers, policy advocates, sustainable practices and international cuisines.  People will come near and far to learn from our triumph and work with us towards a regenerative cooperative future.  

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • My Wife


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