Published March 12, 2013
Samina Raja has spent the better part of the past decade conducting research in the field of food security and heading the only research laboratory in the United States dedicated to food systems planning.
Now, Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning in the UB School of Architecture and Planning, has received a $3.96 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to extend research she has conducted in Buffalo and Western New York to communities across the U.S. “Growing Food Connections” is a major research and training initiative that seeks to strengthen local and regional food systems by building the capacity of local governments to reconnect farmers with underserved consumers.
“The Buffalo metropolitan area has offered us a rich environment to study the challenges in our local food system, as well as overcome these challenges through innovative planning and policy strategies developed and implemented with our local public and non-profit partners," says Raja. "We now have the opportunity to share our experiences with other communities in the United States."
The project is funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) program, which emphasizes increasing food security in vulnerable areas, strengthening the sustainability and economic resilience of rural communities, and supporting farms engaged in local and regional food systems that use sustainable practices.
Raja’s co-investigators on the project are Julia Freedgood, managing director of the American Farmland Trust; Kimberly Hodgson, principal of Cultivating Healthy Places; and Jill Clark, assistant professor, Ohio State University. The project team will work with the American Planning Association’s (APA) Planning and Community Health Research Center to carry out research and support tasks. A national advisory committee, with representation from diverse disciplines, regions and research backgrounds, will guide the project’s research and extension activities, and help disseminate findings.
“Growing Food Connections” will be the topic of a session at the APA’s 2013 national meeting, to be held in April in Chicago.
Targeting 20 urban and rural communities across the U.S. that are significantly underserved by the nation’s food system, Growing Food Connections will develop research and knowledge, and provide extension activities and technical assistance to help local governments adopt policies that foster direct linkages between producers and consumers.
Raja says one of the project’s first activities will be a national survey of planning practitioners across the U.S. that will assess how local governments are using policy and planning tools to foster a healthy local agricultural sector. The survey will target more than 43,000 planners or planning representatives working with local and regional governments across the country. In-depth case studies of select communities will more fully examine their policy tools and reveal the opportunities and challenges experienced by food systems stakeholders.
The project then will develop research-supported extension activities, including policy tools and trainings, to help local governments develop and enact policies that reconnect vulnerable consumers in food deserts with local farmers. The target audience for these activities includes agricultural educators, land grants and cooperative extensions, planners, public health departments, and rural and economic development agencies.
Raja says the project team also will deliver technical assistance to participating communities to build the capacity of consumers, farmers and their advocates to take a more effective role in the policy-making processes that impact their food system.
The project also has a broad educational mission that includes developing multidisciplinary graduate curriculum materials on food systems policy for 10 partner universities across the U.S.
As part of this mission, the School of Architecture and Planning has launched a doctoral fellowship in food systems planning—the first in the country—through its new PhD program in urban and regional planning. The Jerome L. Kaufman Fellowship honors the intellectual legacy of Jerome L. Kaufman, widely regarded as the “father of food systems planning.” Kaufman Fellows will work directly with Raja, who also directs the school's Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab.
As an active member of the APA, Raja 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 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. Raja is 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.