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My Grandmother’s Garden: Hope From Tragedy

After the 2022 Tops shooting that claimed the life of Ruth Whitfield, her granddaughter seeks to establish a community food hub
Kamilah Whitfield Main Image
Kamilah Whitfield

In the wake of the May 2022 mass shooting at a Tops store in Buffalo, N.Y., Kamilah Whitfield, granddaughter of Ruth Whitfield, one of those lost in the massacre, decided to honor her grandmother’s memory by opening a community food hub. Following are her comments on how she came to embark on this unique project.

My grandmother was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt. A God-fearing woman who believed in the power of prayer, she was a faithful member of our church, Durham Memorial A.M.E Zion, and continued regular attendance until her untimely passing. On Easter of 2022, she told me how happy she was that I found my way back to our church.

“Grandmommy” is what I called her. She absolutely loved shopping and would always keep us in mind during her shopping trips. I remember very distinctly, before my eighth-grade graduation, she pulled up to my house with the most beautiful pink silk embroidered dress. I hadn’t asked her to get me a dress. My parents hadn’t asked her to get me a dress. She was just all about family, and looking good was something she took great pride in.

My grandmother also took great pride in her authentic soul food cuisine, making most things from scratch. She began a tradition of Sunday dinners, which we still continue. Her famous pound cake and macaroni and cheese had a special place at family events.

I laugh when I think about just how strong-willed she could be. I think that rubbed off on me a little. She didn’t miss a beat when it came to caring for my grandfather, who is in a nursing home, even when she was tired or not feeling well herself. In fact, on May 14, 2022, the day that her life was taken in the horrible mass shooting at the grocery store, she had just left from her daily visit with her husband.

She enjoyed fishing and gardening. She was the driving force behind many family camping trips. She was fiercely independent, a woman on the go. She was someone you could talk to about your problems with no fear of judgment. She was my downstairs neighbor, our family’s matriarch. We miss her every day. 

The idea of My Grandmother’s Garden, a community nutrition hub, came about after the mass shooting. I always knew that I lived in a food desert, but I never thought that I would be the person to do something about it. After the shooting, the issue of so many people being without access to food was alarming. I wondered why thousands of people in East Buffalo were primarily dependent on one store. I wondered why we were so desperate for food access that we had to rush to reopen a store where a massacre had occurred.

I have nothing against the actual store. In fact, when many other stores refused to come into the area, that store worked alongside community members and activists to be there. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, if someone had fought for a store in my area, providing my grandmother with a proper place to shop, would she have even gone to that store on that day?

The day that the grocery store reopened, I was flooded with emotions. Rather than allow those emotions to consume me, I had an idea: I would open a store! I would provide my community with a place to shop for their families and also offer healthy alternatives to fast food for days when cooking is just not an option.

As crazy as this idea it may sound to friends, family, and even myself some days, I am committed to getting this done. This mission is much bigger than me. We will provide jobs, we will invest in the community, educate community members about health and nutrition. We will make eating healthy a more realistic option for those without transportation. We will support the growth of our employees. I have decided that everyone will be a manager at My Grandmother’s Garden. Employees will be able to leave with management experience, giving them a leg up in the workforce. It is my hope that because everyone will be a manager, there will be no passing of the buck, so to speak. We will hold each other accountable for running a respectable store that treats customers like family. We will deliver groceries directly to East Buffalo residents, and I also hope to shuttle residents to and from the store.

The biggest challenge I face in this mission is the fact that I started out with no experience in the retail food industry. So, once I decided on the mission, I began seeking education. I became a certified gourmet food store owner after completing my coursework through IAP Career College. I’ve been reaching out to potential mentors, and have been extremely blessed to meet people who are willing to share knowledge and information with me. Soon, I will be a part-time employee at Braymiller Market, owned by one of my mentors, Stuart Green. I have been researching and planning. It won’t be easy. I have a long road ahead, but the community deserves it.

I found out about The NGA Show through a friend, Allison DeHonney, who is doing great things in the public-health and food advocacy arena in Buffalo. I was hoping to attend, but I had just missed the early-bird rate by one day! I reached out to Cruz Alvarado, the event director, to see if she could extend the promo code for me. We had a chance to talk and eventually had a Zoom meeting, and I shared my story with her. She saw fit to extend a guest pass for me to attend. I am truly grateful for her belief in my mission and her willingness to help.

Being immersed in the world of groceries for three days, meeting store owners and key industry players, was a great experience for a newcomer like myself. I returned to Buffalo with an even stronger belief in my mission and gained an immense offering of support from my new NGA family.

I thought the curriculum was very diverse. I wished I could have been in two or three places at once so I could soak up all the information, but I had to make some tough choices. I found great value in every session I attended. The FMS Financial Symposium was extremely informative. I also attended the active-shooter session. It’s so sad to me that we have to prepare for active-shooter situations in retail, but that session was reflective of the times.

The keynote speaker [Eric Weihenmayer] delivered one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard in person. I laughed and I cried with him. His message of embracing adversity, and allowing it to propel us to climb the highest peaks, resonated with me tremendously. “Building Excitement Around a New Store Opening” was also a favorite of mine. It was fun, and the panel gave tips and advice about ways to involve the community in your grand opening. I was able to visualize some of the ways to build that excitement and make the opening of My Grandmother’s Garden a special event.

I am in the planning stages. I am continuing to research, network and educate myself. This will not be an overnight success, but I am learning to trust the process. I ask God to order my steps and take me where I need to be. I look forward to being able to serve my community and honor the legacy of my grandmother Ruth E. Whitfield. 

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