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Raj named doctoral fellow in food-systems planning

Kami Pothukuchi, Samina Raja and Subhashni Raj

Subhashni Raj (right) with Kami Pothukuchi (left) and Samina Raja (center), both members of the fellowship selection committee. Raj will work in Raja's Food Lab.

By RACHEL TEAMAN

Published June 19, 2014

“It’s the kids, seeing their hope and energy for the future. I want to be a part of that.”
Subhashni Raj, Jerome L. Kaufman Doctoral Fellow
School of Architecture and Planning

Fulbright scholar and climate activist Subhashni Raj, who just completed her master of urban planning at UB, will start her PhD at the university this fall as the first recipient of the Jerome L. Kaufman Doctoral Fellowship for the study of food-systems planning.

The fellowship honors the legacy of Jerome Kaufman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who carved out a place for the food system within the field of planning through groundbreaking teaching, research, and professional and community engagement.

Associated with UB’s new PhD in urban and regional planning, the program will train the next generation of food-systems planners and support new research on planning’s role in building equitable and sustainable food systems—from food production and processing to food access and consumption. It is the first doctoral fellowship in food systems planning in the U.S., organizers say.

Raj’s interest in food security developed after she joined the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (Food Lab) of Samina Raja, UB associate professor of urban and regional planning, to conduct master’s research. Here, Raj became closely engaged in several food initiatives in the Buffalo community, including a study of urban agriculture’s effects on fruit and vegetable consumption among youth on the city’s West Side.

“It’s the kids, seeing their hope and energy for the future. I want to be a part of that,” says Raj, adding that Buffalo’s wave of grassroots efforts makes it an ideal place to study the issue.

As a Kaufman Fellow, Raj will have the opportunity to test her research on a national scale by working with Raja and the Food Lab on the Growing Food Connections initiative, funded by a $3.96 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That project seeks to bring the tools of food-systems planning to 20 food-insecure regions across the country through research and extension activities in the community.

Subhashni Raj

Subhashni Raj addresses the impact of climate change on agriculture at a Sierra Club event at Singer Farm Naturals in Niagara County.

Through the fellowship, Raj will explore planning as a tool to manage and mitigate the impacts of climate change on the food system. From Earth’s rising temperature to extreme weather events, climate variability poses significant threats to an already fragile global food system, says Raj.

“Food and climate are inextricably linked, and the resource constraints on the planet require society to develop an understanding of the intersection between the food system and climate change,” she says.

As a Kaufman Fellow, Raj will receive three years of support and work directly with Raja, an international leader in the discipline. Raj also will work out of Raja’s Food Lab in the School of Architecture and Planning.

Raj says the fellowship gives her the opportunity to fuse two of her passions: pushing for solutions to the climate crisis and ensuring food security for all.

When Raj came to UB’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning in 2011, she already was a seasoned climate activist. She had organized demonstrations around the globe as a volunteer with 350.org, a grassroots movement to address the climate crisis. A native of Fiji, she also founded 350 Pacific, a youth-led network fighting climate-change impacts across the Pacific Islands. As an undergraduate in microbiology, she studied the impacts of global warming on Fiji’s coral reefs.

According to members of the fellowship’s national selection committee, Raj rose to the top of a highly competitive pool of candidates due to the potential of her research to cross new frontiers.

“The committee felt that Subhashni reflected Jerry’s aspirations the best. Her research has the greatest potential to break new ground,” says Raja, who studied under Kaufman at the University of Wisconsin and has conducted pioneering research on the relationship of the food system to community health.

Committee member Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit, agrees.

“The field of climate studies is inherently interdisciplinary, as is food planning. But those two fields have not been linked. Subhashni’s proposal will begin to fill that gap,” says Pothukuchi, a close colleague of Kaufman until his recent death.

Other committee members are Judith Zukerman Kaufman; Marcia Caton Campbell, Center for Resilient Cities; Martin Bailkey, Growing Power; and Branden Born, University at Washington-Seattle.

For Raj, a doctorate in planning is a critical step in her pursuit of global-scale impacts on climate change and food security.

“Through my experiences in bureaucracy and activism, I have come to the conclusion that both require a body of knowledge to provide them with the tools and mechanisms to make meaningful change in the world.”