A student’s journey from Kashmir to Buffalo to study food systems planning

Insha Akram, a graduate student in the UB Food Lab, photographed in front of Hayes Hall on the University at Buffalo’s South Campus. Photo: Douglas Levere

Release Date: September 15, 2023

Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning; principal investigator, Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (Food Lab), University at Buffalo. Photo: Douglas Levere.
Akram “brings a blend of ethical values, an ethic of hard work, a curious mind, and sharp thinking that makes her an outstanding graduate student with a stellar GPA of 4.0.”
Samina Raja, PhD, director
UB Food Lab

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Women sustain and nourish communities’ food systems worldwide. They grow food, weed, harvest, prepare, cook and feed people, even under the most difficult of circumstances, such as wars and conflict.

Insha Akram, a graduate student member of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (the UB Food Lab) in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, is working to make visible the experiences of smallholder women farmers in regions experiencing conflict.

Akram, who is pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning with a specialization in community health and food systems planning and is also an affiliate of the Community for Global Health Equity at UB, is focusing her graduate thesis on the gendered nature of the food system in Jammu and Kashmir, a conflict region in South Asia.

Akram’s intellectual interests in the gendered nature of food systems are rooted in her interdisciplinary training, professional and lived experience. Prior to joining UB, Akram trained in business management and worked in the corporate food system. She grew up in a family with ties to farming in the region of Kashmir.

Across her domestic and professional worlds, Akram observed that women were crucial actors within the food system. Yet, their access to power, agency, resources and profits within the food system was constrained.

In Kashmir, women’s role within the food system was further hindered by the layered violence that pervades conflict settings. A commitment to promoting Kashmiri women’s well-being by using the food system as a lever for social transformation motivated Akram to pursue higher studies.

Akram’s pursuit of higher education is especially remarkable given the intertwined structural barriers that pervade life in a protracted conflict setting. Like those of other children in Kashmir, Akram’s formal education was thwarted because schools were often closed during curfews, violence and shutdowns.

When schools were open, daily mobility was risky in one of the most militarized regions of the world. A life-threatening medical emergency due to the non-availability of medical supplies at a particularly volatile time of the protracted conflict interrupted Akram’s education.

Despite the many barriers, Akram pursued her education doggedly, supported by her family and the broader Kashmiri community.

“My mother supported me throughout my journey and pushed me to chase my dreams,” she says. “It is because of her unwavering faith in my abilities that I, too, believed that I could [pursue higher education], and so, I did.”

Akram’s dream to pursue graduate studies in food systems was made possible with the generous support of the Kashmiri American diaspora and the Buffalo community. In 2021, Akram was selected to the Kashmiri Scholars Pathway program founded and run by Samina Raja, PhD, professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and director of the UB Food Lab.

Owing to her remarkable determination in the Pathways Program, Akram was offered a position as a remote research affiliate with the UB Food Lab, where she began research on the experiences of smallholder farmers in the Global South in 2022.

“My mentors in the Kashmiri diaspora affirmed the value of my multidisciplinary skills, my eagerness to learn, and adaptability to changing situations, which encouraged me,” Akram says.

In 2022, Akram began applying to graduate schools in the U.S., an aspiration that would be impossible for her without financial support. Multiple individuals and organizations in the community rallied around the ambitious student. A scholarship from the AFK Foundation, the Guru Scholars Program, a community-driven Go Fund Me campaign, and a research assistantship at the UB Food Lab enabled Akram to begin her graduate studies at UB last year.

Raja, who continues to advise Akram, notes that she “brings a blend of ethical values, an ethic of hard work, a curious mind, and sharp thinking that makes her an outstanding graduate student with a stellar GPA of 4.0.”

Akram’s outstanding ideas have also received national attention: She is the winner of the 2023 award from the American Association of University Women that is supporting her master’s thesis research.

“The AFK foundation is delighted to note the remarkable accomplishments of Insha Akram. We wish her continued success as she pursues her passion and dream of mastering food system planning,” says Faroque Khan, founder of the AFK Foundation.

Akram continues to give back to the community through her civic spirit. She supports other Kashmiri (and international students) at UB by mentoring them. This fall, Akram begins her term as the elected secretary of the Graduate Students Planning Association in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, while continuing her focus on academic excellence.

Within Buffalo, Akram has supported work on equitable urban agriculture on Buffalo’s East Side as well as other projects in the UB Food Lab. Akram, who is on track to graduate from UB in spring 2024, notes that her academic trajectory is a testament to the power of community – motivated by community and supported by the community.

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