Food for Thought

How UB's Samina Raja created a seat at the table for food planners

Samina Raja with members of the UB Food Lab research team and representatives from the Massachusetts Avenue Project.

Samina Raja (fourth from left) with members of the UB Food Lab research team and representatives from the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP). Photo: Douglas Levere

By Sharon Tregaskis


Samina Raja was a newly minted civil engineer and urban planner in the summer of 1999 when Kashmir was wracked with an armed conflict that had been simmering since her youth. Despite the violence, she had steady work, reviewing plans for giant hotels and high-end interior renovations. But increasingly, she felt torn. “It just didn’t make moral sense,” she says. “I was using my civil engineering and planning skills for the wrong projects.”    

Envisioning a post-conflict future in which she could put those skills to work promoting equity and justice in her homeland, Raja immigrated to the United States to earn a PhD in urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (she had already earned a master’s in the field in New Delhi). Over the next three years, she dug into the quantitative and methodological tools planners use to make their case, as she and her adviser, economist Jack Huddleston, scrutinized the strengths and  shortcomings of traditional fiscal impact analysis—the strategy planners utilize to assess whether a community might benefit more from a casino or a used-car lot, a supermarket or a children’s playground.

Samina Raja in front of “Da Garden,” a community garden started by MAP youth.

Raja in front of “Da Garden,” a community garden started by MAP youth. Photo: Douglas Levere

At the same time, she was becoming increasingly immersed in the ideas of UW urban planning professor Jerome Kaufman, who was then in the process of coaxing into being the nascent field of food systems planning. From Kaufman, Raja learned to see how the web of food producers, distributors, processors and consumers together compose a local food system and sustain a community, and how the design and planning of cities impact that process. Off campus, Raja was getting her hands dirty at a community garden that made fresh produce affordable, even as members struggled to attract the support of local legislators. “Talking with Jack and Jerry, I recognized that this community garden that mattered a great deal to me really didn’t matter to planners,” says Raja. “It wasn’t considered the highest and best use of land.”

Two decades later, Raja, an associate professor in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, stands atop an intellectual empire that puts community priorities for local food systems front and center in the work of urban planners. Hired in 2002 to teach research methods at the school, she also founded UB’s Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (the Food Lab), which now comprises a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as two full-time research associates. Much of their work extends the vision laid out by Raja, Kaufman and colleagues in “A Planners Guide to Community and Regional Food Planning,” a research monograph published in 2008 by the American Planning Association that champions planners’ involvement in food systems and proposes specific roles for their participation.

“In its broadest conception, planning is about bringing information or knowledge to bear on problems people face in communities,” says Raja, who also holds an adjunct appointment in the School of Public Health and Health Professions. “Planners pride themselves on making places work for people; they think about housing, the environment, jobs.”

Meanwhile, she says, food systems have gotten short shrift. Consider, for example, the tenuous leases held by community gardens, the zoning and permitting challenges faced by neighborhoods organizing a farmers market, and the regulatory headaches that impede food truck owners whose menus could boost options in an underserved neighborhood. It’s a stark contrast to the relative ease with which a corporate supermarket lumbers through bureaucratic requirements to attract tax deferments and other development incentives, even though such micro-entrepreneurial businesses as food trucks and farmers markets actually keep more dollars circulating locally. “It makes economic sense for planners to understand food systems,” she says.

Participants in the Massachusetts Avenue Project’s (MAP’s) Growing Green Youth Program harvest rainbow chard.

Participants in MAP’s Growing Green Youth Program harvest rainbow chard. Photo: MAP

Digging in

For Raja, however, food systems planning extends well beyond economic considerations. Central to her expansive vision is a pursuit of equity and social justice for the people who have long been disenfranchised by traditional planning—the poor, people of color, immigrants and refugees.

This ethos shines through her long-running partnership with the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), a nonprofit on Buffalo’s West Side. The neighborhood was flecked with vacant lots and abandoned houses when residents founded MAP in 1992 to develop safe spaces for their kids to play. They built a playground, then opened a neighborhood center. In 1998, they started a garden on two lots across the street from the neighborhood center, which quickly expanded to become Buffalo’s first urban farm.

Local teens plan and work the farm—a patchwork of more than a dozen vacant lots, all within walking distance of one another—and much of their harvest is consumed by families in the community. Buoyed by the farm’s popularity, MAP hosted a round of public meetings in 2002 to collect input on how to extend its programs in urban agriculture to combat the racial and economic injustice at the heart of the neighborhood’s troubles. Raja was among those who showed up to learn more.

Since then, Raja and her team in the Food Lab have devoted thousands of hours to documenting and analyzing MAP’s local impact, revealing the effect of MAP participation on kids’ consumption of vegetables, challenging the USDA’s characterization of the West Side as a food desert and investigating how the large number of immigrants who’ve settled in the area affects the local food system.

“Samina hears, understands and respects the perspectives of people who have experienced the greatest injustices that the food system can deliver,” says Center for Resilient Cities Executive Director Marcia Caton Campbell, who advised Raja’s first food system assessment at UW. “She sees all the different sectors, the key nodes and linkages, and she’s very interested in the people who are on the ground. She is interested in making sure that those people get their due—not from a top-down perspective, but from the perspective of the people themselves.”

Raja’s first official collaboration with MAP was a 2003 planning practicum conceived with the organization’s executive director, Diane Picard. The 6-credit course was one of three studio options UB students could take to fulfill requirements for the master of urban planning program. Eleven students dug into the assignment to assess food security on the West Side and identify opportunities to improve the situation, with Raja and Picard as their co-advisers. In 2005, the American Institute of Certified Planners honored the course for its pedagogical merits. Picard still references the 150-page compendium that resulted from the students’ research (“Food for Growth: A Community Food System Plan for Buffalo’s West Side”), illustrated with artwork by children from the community. “It gave us data to bring to politicians, policymakers and funders, to show there was an issue in our neighborhood,” she says.

In the nearly 15 years since Raja’s students completed “Food for Growth,” MAP has added a mobile farmers market with six sites in underserved Buffalo neighborhoods, launched beekeeping and aquaculture programs, and developed an array of programs for teens. The latter include horticultural training on the MAP farm site; business-development experience creating value-added products, like salsa and salad dressing; and even college-readiness opportunities, such as mentorship and college visits. In 2015, MAP harvested more than 18,000 pounds of vegetables, started a second youth garden, purchased four more vacant lots, and employed and trained 50 young people in urban agriculture.

Meanwhile, Raja has continued to identify opportunities to support MAP, as well as a handful of other Buffalo-area nonprofits pursuing similar goals. She tailors grant applications to answer questions they have, features them as case studies in her planning studios and gives Food Lab researchers their data to analyze. Often, the work has mutual benefits. In 2014, Raja and Picard co-authored “Rustbelt Radicalism,” a case study for the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (JAFSCD) that details how MAP successfully influenced local planners and lawmakers, leading to transformations in municipal policy and planning for strengthening food systems.

MAP’s farmers market is staffed by youth program participants.

MAP’s farmers market is staffed by youth program participants. Photo: MAP

Ties that bind

MAP stands out in a growing field of grassroots organizations across the United States focused on transforming urban and rural food systems. In 2012, to foster communication among these groups and build on their successes, Raja established Growing Food Connections (GFC), an ambitious project subsequently dedicated to the intellectual legacy of her mentor, Jerry Kaufman, who passed away in 2013. His photo now sits on Raja’s desk in her Hayes Hall office.

Funded with a $3.96 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the five-year effort—led by Raja—is a partnership among the Food Lab, the American Farmland Trust, the American Planning Association, the international consulting firm Cultivating Healthy Places and Ohio State University. The group’s highest profile project is a collaboration with eight “communities of opportunity,” municipalities and counties around the country that have invited the GFC team to help them bridge the gap between food production and food security through public policy.

Additional GFC projects include documenting innovative food system policies in vulnerable urban and rural communities and creating an array of online resources, such as a massive, searchable policy database and a series of planning briefs, as well as social networking and continuing education for activists and elected officials. “GFC is going to have lasting impacts,” says Duncan Hilchey, editor-in-chief of JAFSCD and co-coordinator of Cornell University’s Lyson Center for Civic Agriculture and Food Systems. “I don’t know how many dozens of food systems professionals and activists I’ve referred to GFC’s database. It’s really amazing. You want an example of a municipal ordinance dealing with the regulation of bees? It’s just a couple of keystrokes, and presto! It’s such a gold mine for planners and policymakers.”

As with her partnership with MAP, Raja has invited UB students to take leading roles in GFC, collecting and analyzing data, and building relationships with project partners. While some seek her out because of a shared interest, the professor also actively recruits from the ranks of undergraduate- and graduate-level students in her classes. “I absolutely love it,” says Raja, who weaves data analytics into her coursework. “When we don’t teach students about those methods, they can argue all they like from a place of value and passion, but they can’t bring to bear evidence to guide their answer.”

Participants in the Massachusetts Avenue Project’s (MAP’s) Growing Green Youth Program.

Photo: MAP

By the numbers

An alumnus of the UB program, Derek Nichols (MUP ’10, BA ’07) was already a bit of a data junkie when he enrolled in Raja’s statistics class. “It was one of the hardest courses I’ve ever taken,” he says. “And it was so fulfilling.” Nichols went on to work with Raja on multiple courses, co-authoring a report with fellow students on opportunities for Buffalo to bolster its support for the local food system. The Green Code, a historic overhaul of Buffalo’s land-use plan adopted in 2016, reflects many of the students’ recommendations, including bureaucratic and zoning supports to promote urban farmers, community gardeners, food truck owners and other participants in the local food economy.

Now director of education and outreach for Grassroots Gardens WNY, a nonprofit organization that supports the operations of more than 100 community gardens scattered throughout Buffalo, Nichols still partners with Raja to produce the analyses that exceed what he and the organization’s executive director can produce alone.

Derek Nichols at Cottage District Community Garden, a Grassroots Gardens WNY site. Photo: Douglas Levere

In 2013, for example, Grassroots Gardens partnered with the Food Lab to conduct the Buffalo Neighborhood Food Project, a USDA/NIFA-funded collaboration to enhance the city’s food system. “[The Food Lab] did all of our data collection and processing,” says Nichols. “We found out our gardens grew 30,000 pounds of food and 75 percent of our school gardens are in food deserts. We’ll use that data for future grant applications.”

Among Raja’s more recent recruits, doctoral candidate Subhashni Raj (MUP ’13) came to the United States in the fall of 2011 as a Fulbright scholar from Fiji. A seasoned climate activist and organizer, Raj had a limited social network in the early months of her tenure at UB and was fast accruing more time on her hands than she knew what to do with. Then she heard Raja’s Food Lab pitch. “I don’t know anything about food planning,” she told Raja. “I’m interested in climate change. But I’m interested in research and I’ll work for free.”

Like Raja, Raj had come to the United States to build the quantitative and methodological skills she would need to make a difference back home, where climate-change impacts are devastating. Raja didn’t quibble over Raj’s passions and instead handed her a dataset, documenting the effects of MAP’s Growing Green youth programming before and after participation. The resulting article, “Beneficial but Constrained: Role of Urban Agriculture Programs in Supporting Healthy Eating Among Youth,” was published last year in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. “I worked on the food research,” says Raj, “but I also cultivated my own interest, how I could use food as a lens for my climate-change research. It couldn’t have been a better fit.”

Raj continued to work with the Food Lab after earning her master’s in May 2013, and the following month she was selected from a national pool to become UB’s inaugural Jerome L. Kaufman Doctoral Fellow. In the Spring 2017 semester she taught a graduate-level course on food systems planning; in April, some of her students pitched in to help a local coalition formulating a campaign aimed at transforming how public institutions purchase food. “Our community is the most important thing,” says Raj, sounding very much like her mentor. “They ask the questions, we facilitate finding the answers. We exist because the community has a need.”

Beyond Buffalo

Haakh, a traditional Kashmiri cooking green.

Haakh, a traditional Kashmiri cooking green. Photo: MAP

Even as she has devoted a laser-like focus to food systems in the greater Buffalo area, Kashmir native Samina Raja has maintained a global perspective. She’s a member of the guideline development group on Health and Housing for the World Health Organization’s Public Health and Environment Department and has also served on an expert group for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, promoting the integration of food systems into urban planning worldwide. On Oct. 16, 2016—World Food Day—Raja and the UB Food Lab team led a training session in Ecuador as part of a U.N. conference to ratify the New Urban Agenda, which sets global standards of achievement in sustainable urban development.

In 2015, UB named Raja a co-leader of its Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity (CGHE), part of a $25 million initiative to connect faculty across disciplines to solve pressing societal issues through research, education and engagement. One pilot project on food equity in the Global South brings Raja full circle: Her team, led by Alex Judelsohn (MA ’16), is studying how urbanization, climate change and global commerce are affecting the cultivation and consumption of haakh, a collard green that is a staple of traditional Kashmiri cooking.

Beginning farmer Sharon Tregaskis covers the worlds of health care and agriculture from her home in the Finger Lakes.