Immigrants and Food: Role of Ethnic Markets in Transforming and Leveraging Food Systems

Mural on West Side Bazaar facade.

Mural on West Side Bazaar facade

Are you fluent in Burmese and/or Arakanese and interested in working on a transformational project with a committed group of interdisciplinary researchers? Join us as we document the impact of the West Side Bazaar on the local food system.

Project description

Community food systems are a key asset in cities and regions globally. Defined as the complex networks of activities and networks, food systems enable food to travel from soil to plate. The food system includes the supply chain of businesses that grow, process, and distribute food to consumers. In Erie County, for example, the food system is big business, contributing nearly 10% to the county’s GDP. A well-functioning food system ensures that people have access to good food, and that food is produced ecologically-sensitive and economically just manner. At the heart of communities’ food system are entrepreneurs, who ensure that the food supply chain works well.

Key within the county’s food system are 63,161 immigrants, who play varied roles, as consumers and/or workers/business owners. As consumers, immigrants acculturate into a new country, face both the opportunities and challenges of a new food environment and culture. As workers/business owners, immigrants bring new ideas and energy to their new environment, and also face challenges in establishing and sustaining businesses.

In Erie County, community organizations have worked to create structures and opportunities where immigrants thrive and bring new energy to Buffalo’s neighborhoods. One of these organizations is the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI). Through its West Side Bazaar, “WEDI provides a tangible, self-sustaining, food-economies program that empowers low-income entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses that serve affordable, socially relevant cuisines to a surrounding community that is culturally rich yet economically distressed. The West Side Bazaar represents a synthesis of the following: a small business incubator, a startup accelerator, a community meeting space, and a public market."

WEDI is now experimenting with scaling-up their efforts into the West Side Bazaar Expansion Initiative, with USDA support.

The Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab will partner with WEDI to document the impact of the West Side Bazaar on the local food system. We are especially interested in understanding the collective impact of the multiple vendors on the city-regional food system through procurement from the city-regional supply chain. The evaluation will focus on the role of the West Side Bazaar on the local food system, especially in the lives and livelihood of the immigrant vendors. The evaluation will complement the other evaluation activities of WEDI. This particular evaluation will focus on the nature of networks of the vendors within the local food system, and how WEDI’s work with the vendors transforms these food systems networks over the course of the project.

Project outcome

Data will be collected through semi-structured interviews with vendors in the West Side Bazaar, as well as WEDI staff. Interested research assistants must be fluent in Burmese and/or Arakanese, as one of their primary roles in data collection will be to assist with interpretation during interviews with vendors that may have limited english speaking skills. The student will have the opportunity to learn about qualitative data collection and analysis in a collaborative and interdisciplinary setting. Audio recorded interviews will be transcribed and coded using computer software for which training will be available. Data collected on vendor procurement will be geocoded using GIS to provide a spatial analysis of food system impact. Interview protocols, recruitment strategies and analysis approach will be provided to WEDI staff in advance for feedback and partner collaboration.

We can provide a modest hourly stipend for time spent on the project (we expect about 10 hours a week commitment, but this is negotiable).

The Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab will provide a report to WEDI annually elaborating progress to date. The first annual report due in September 2020 will include an updated literature review, detailed plan for recruitment including progress to date, and all interview protocols. The second annual report due in September 2021 will include a synthesis of key themes from vendor, staff, and client interviews as well as a detailed plan for any further analysis of interviews. The final report due in September 2022 will include a literature review, all analysis from the interviews, as well as a spatial analysis of the food supply chains used by vendors at the West Side Bazaar.

Project details

Timing, eligibility and other details
Length of commitment About a semester (3-5 months)
Start time Summer (June through August)
In-person, remote, or hybrid?
Level of collaboration Individual or small group project 
Benefits Work study
Who is eligible All undergraduate students who fluently speak Burmese or Arakanese

Core partners

Project mentor

Samina Raja


Urban and Regional Planning

Phone: (716) 829-5771


Start the project

  1. Email the project mentor using the contact information above to express your interest and get approval to work on the project. (Here are helpful tips on how to contact a project mentor.)
  2. After you receive approval from the mentor to start this project, click the button to start the digital badge. (Learn more about ELN's digital badge options.) 

Preparation activities

Once you begin the digital badge series, you will have access to all the necessary activities and instructions. Your mentor has indicated they would like you to also complete the specific preparation activities below. Please reference this when you get to Step 2 of the Preparation Phase. 

  • Since our research and data collection involves human subjects, students will need to complete Research Ethics and Compliance Training (also known as IRB training) to participate. Training courses needed include: 
    • Biomedical Research 
    • Investigators Biomedical Responsible Conduct of Research Course 
    • Social & Behavioral Research Investigators 
    • Social and Behavioral Responsible Conduct of Research Course 
  • If students have already completed these, and are up to date on their certificates, no preliminary preparation will be necessary. 
  • We also recommend that students read the article Agents of Change: How Immigrant-Run Ethnic Food Retailers Improve Food Environments, in preparation for the subject of our research.


Urban and Regional Planning