Research, Action by UB and Community Groups Alter City's Dietary Landscape

Food environment studies, urban farms, mobile marketplace are among the tools

Release Date: May 28, 2008

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Food systems planner Samina Raja is working to make Buffalo a healthier community by improving its food environment.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Food systems planner Samina Raja, Ph.D., of the University at Buffalo School of Architectural and Planning, has been involved for several years with a number of successful projects with the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) and other community groups that are helping make Buffalo a healthier city by improving its food environment.

Raja and two of her UB colleagues recently conducted a study of food environments in Erie County, looking for "food deserts." It is one aspect of her continuing effort to understand and propose ways through which urban planners can strengthen a community's food system.

The study, "Beyond Food Deserts: Measuring and Mapping Racial Disparities in Neighborhood Food Environments," will be published in the June issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research (Vol. 7, issue 4).

It was co-authored by two of Raja's UB colleagues, Changxing Ma, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Biostatistics, School of Public Health and Health Professions, and Pavan Yadav, project support specialist, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning.

"Food deserts," Raja explains, "are environments in which there is little or no access to fresh food. Such environments pose a health risk for residents (including elderly and children) who must instead depend on convenience foods and fast foods, whose nutrient levels are low."

Raja found that Erie County's food environment includes a variety of food destinations, such as supermarkets, small grocery stores and restaurants, with restaurants dominating the food environment. There are about 87 restaurants within a five-minute drive of each census block group in Erie County, compared to only 1.79 supermarkets per census block group.

Access, in particular, to fresh foods is worse for low-income and minority residents. Even where restaurants abound low-income residents, and particularly families, cannot afford to eat at them often. In addition, a vast number of restaurants are of the fast-food variety, which specialize in high-carbohydrate, high-fat options.

"In terms of supermarkets," Raja says, "we found that in Erie County, there are fewer supermarkets in minority neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods.

"For example, compared to predominantly white neighborhoods, black neighborhoods have about one-half (0.43 times) of the number of supermarkets within a five-minute walk.

"When the quality of food environment in a community is poor," Raja says, "residents are more vulnerable to hunger and diet-related diseases like diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, heart disease and obesity."

She notes that such problems especially plague lower-income residents and cost a fortune to treat.

"On the plus side, however, we found that in minority neighborhoods, there is an extensive network of small grocery stores that have the potential to offer access to fresh produce and meats," she says.

"We conclude that access to healthful foods in underserved neighborhoods of Erie County would be more efficiently insured by supporting small-high quality grocery stores than by soliciting the establishment of large supermarkets."

Raja's collaborative efforts with MAP to strengthen Buffalo's community food system have helped establish a way of addressing the lack of fresh produce that marks poor and minority neighborhoods.

They include the establishment of urban community gardens, training youth in sustainable food systems and increasing the availability of fresh produce in urban neighborhoods.

Their latest collaboration is the Buffalo Grown Mobile Marketplace, a new healthy-eating and community-economic-development initiative that will bring fresh, locally produced produce and other local food products to food deserts identified in Raja's study on Buffalo's East and West sides. Raja will also evaluate the success of the Mobile Market in increasing access to healthy foods in food-desert neighborhoods.

MAP, under the leadership of Lauren Breen, clinical instructor in the UB Law School, recently received a $100,000 grant from Buffalo's 21st Century Fund to secure the purchase of a building for a Community Food Resource Center (CFRC) on Buffalo's West Side.

The CFRC will serve as a central storage facility for the new Mobile Market Project, as well as a site of a commercial community kitchen for entrepreneurs. The CFRC will also house a café that will sell locally produced foods to residents. Breen and Raja foresee the project as a model for simultaneously fulfilling the goals of community economic development and food security in the City of Buffalo.

Raja's research focuses on planning and design for healthy communities examining the influence of the food and built environments on obesity and physical activity, and the fiscal dimensions of planning.

She currently is collaborating with colleagues in the UB School of Medicine Biomedical Sciences and the School of Public Health and Health Professions on an ongoing multi-year million-dollar study funded by the National Institutes of Health that examines the effect of the built environment on obesity among youth.

Raja is also part of a national team funded by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to develop a framework for evaluating traditional methods of fiscal impact analysis.

Her international work has evaluated the role of planning in communities experiencing conflict and her geographic area of expertise is South Asia's Kashmir region.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system that is its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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