Published January 6, 2021
With abundant groves of coconut palm trees and a motley of colorful bananas hanging from nearly every storefront, the south Indian village of Karakulam enjoys a rich food culture.
As in other communities around the globe, Karakulam’s community food system is a complex and rich web of place-based infrastructure that enables food to travel from source to plate (or, banana leaf) and beyond. Community food systems include the production, aggregation, processing, wholesale, and retail of food, as well as the acquisition, preparation, and consumption of food by people and management of the resultant agricultural and food waste. Nutrition, jobs, public health, environmental health, and other important community outcomes are all influenced, directly and indirectly, by well-functioning food systems.
Urban planners are trained to think about the ways that land use, transportation, and other systems can bolster wellbeing, but the crucial role food systems play in this work is often poorly understood. To gain a deeper awareness of each sector in Karakulam’s food system, a group of seven University at Buffalo students traveled to the village in January 2020 as part of a graduate practicum in the Master of Urban Planning program, with support from the Community for Global Health Equity, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the UB Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (UB Food Lab).
Karakulam is located in Thiruvananthapuram, one of the most rapidly urbanizing districts in the state of Kerala. Although rich traditions of agrarian knowledge, culture, and land have allowed the community to thrive for generations, urbanization and globalization pressures threaten the ability of growers to provide for their families, particularly in the face of a rapidly changing climate. Still, the village’s homesteading culture remains strong, as does the local government’s stance against the “unscientific and irreparable” development depleting its natural water and soil resources.
In partnership with planning students from the College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET in Kerala), UB students conducted a community food system assessment of Karakulam. UB and CET students spent three weeks of intensive field work in Karakulam, including site visits, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, household and retail store surveys, and stakeholder interviews. The students then spent their spring semester composing an original and comprehensive food system planning report for the village government of Karakulam, addressing a wide array of topics ranging from food production and supply chain logistics to food access and sustainability issues. Findings were distilled into an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for Karakulam’s community food system. The team found, for instance, that fresh produce was widely available throughout Karakulam, but a lack of cold storage trucks and warehousing created challenges for farmers trying to scale up their production. With sufficient cold storage, more locally produced foods could be sold within Karakulam, although policies favoring larger wholesalers from outside the village could threaten this process.
The students then synthesized community innovations and opportunities—such as residents’ reliance on traditional growing methods and the strong support for agriculture within the local government—into thirteen ideas for the future. With support from a range of governmental and civil service partners, these ideas could be implemented over varied time frames to strengthen Karakulam’s food system. Ideas include the provision of support for resident agricultural training programs, development of community-scale cold storage or warehousing facilities for food, dedication of vacant land to protected community homesteads, and more. Although the primary goal of the report is to benefit Karakulam directly, it will also serve as a model of community food system planning in the Global South.
The practicum was a truly global effort, supervised by Dr. Samina Raja and advised by a team of faculty and researchers from around the world: Dr. Yeeli Mui (Johns Hopkins University and UB), Ms. Radhika Kumar (UB Food Lab), Dr. Priyanjali Prabhakaran (CET), and Dr. Shailaja Nair (CET), as well as Ms. Ushakumari S. and Mr. Jayakumar C. from Thanal, a civil society organization. The practicum complements ongoing work by UB Food Lab and Thanal to build capacity for local government food systems planning in the Global South.
Students have made presentations to domestic and global audiences, including stakeholders in Kerala, India. In November 2020, students made a presentation to the 2020 NY Upstate American Planning Association Chapter Conference. To learn more, please visit: https://www.planning.org/events/eventsingle/9207926/.