Published June 19, 2014
Samina Raja, PhD, associate professor of urban and regional planning in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, has spent the better part of the last decade conducting research in the field of food security and heading the only research laboratory in the United States dedicated to food systems planning.
She now has received a five-year, $3.96 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to fund her project, "Building Local Government Capacity to Alleviate Food Deserts."
The project will extend research she has conducted in Buffalo and Western New York and deliver the tools of food system planning to 20 urban and rural communities in four regions of the country that are in the bottom fifth percentile of areas served by the U.S. food system.
Raja's co-investigators are the American Farmland Trust, Ohio State University, the American Planning Association and Cultivating Healthy Places, a consulting business that specializes in social equity, community health and resilient food systems planning.
The urban and rural communities to be addressed are "food deserts," that is, they have little access to nutritional foods, including fresh produce. The project proposes to enhance food security in these communities by reconnecting farmers with consumers who need and want the fresh food they produce.
Raja says, "First, we will conduct a survey of local government officials in the 20 selected 'communities of opportunity' to identify policies that raise barriers to food availability and those innovative policies that connect local farmers with vulnerable consumers.
"The team will then develop research-based extension activities to provide policy tools and training for local governments that can help them take down barriers and develop and enact policies that will reconnect consumers in food deserts with local farmers," Raja says.
"We also will provide technical assistance to participating communities to build the capacity of extension educators, consumers, farmers, and their advocates to take a more effective role in local policy-making processes that impact their food systems," she says.
As part of its educational mission, the project also will develop and disseminate multi-disciplinary graduate curriculum materials on food systems policy for adoption by ten partner universities across the U. S.
The project also will launch a doctoral fellowship in food systems planning -- the first in the country.
The project exemplifies National Institute of Food and Agriculture priorities, says Raja, by increasing food security in vulnerable areas, strengthening the sustainability and economic resilience of rural communities supporting and supporting many farms engaged in local and regional food systems that use sustainable practices.
Raja directs the UB PhD program in urban and regional planning as well as the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, which trains planners so they can bring knowledge of food systems into their practice.
As an active member of the national American Planning Association (APA), she works to bring the importance of community and regional food planning to the attention of practitioners nationwide. Her academic studios in this field have won national awards and a fall 2011 studio performed an extensive and detailed food system assessment designed to inform the Erie County (NY) Farmland Preservation Plan.
Raja's research on healthy communities examines the influence of the food and built environments on obesity and physical activity. Since 2003, the Food Lab has tracked the impact of urban agriculture on children's health and their awareness of both the food system and their environment, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Raja is currently working on a related multi-year study with colleagues from the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences that to date has received more than a million dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health.
Raja is the author of many studies in her field, and most
recently a co-author of "Improving Health in the United States: The
Role of Health Impact Assessment" (The National Academies Press,