Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Health Food Hero

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Health Food Hero

Article excerpt

A scholar in urban and regional planning, University of Buffalo professor Samina Raja has done considerable work and research to expand the boundaries of her discipline to incorporate food systems analysis and planning. After a decade of leading the nation's only food systems planning research laboratory, Raja, an associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, is extending research she conducted in Buffalo and western New York to a national research project that will reach 20 urban and rural communities. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recently awarded the project, "Building Local Government Capacity to Alleviate Food Deserts," a five-year grant of $3.96 million.

The concern over food deserts, which are defined as communities where residents have little access to nutritional foods, has risen in recent years, motivating activists and scholars such as Raja to address the issue. While the project will enhance food security in food desert communities by connecting local farmers with consumers, its chief aim is to empower local governments so they can enact policies to help alleviate the problem.

"Right now in the United States, local governments don't have the capacity to tackle what I think is one of our most pressing public issues in the [country]," says Raja, "which is that we have high levels of food insecurity, as well as very high levels of obesity.

"We are a country where we have lots of opportunities to grow great food," she continues, "but oftentimes food insecurity exists in places where we have the potential to grow food, but that food is not being grown. The food system in the United States, which enables food to travel from the farm to consumer, doesn't work well. And it especially doesn't work well for people who are among the most impoverished."

As the project's principal investigator, Raja leads a team of researchers from the American Farmland Trust, Ohio State University, the American Planning Association and Cultivating Healthy Places, a consulting business that specializes in social equity and resilient food systems planning. Raja, the founding director of UB's Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, says the team expects to develop "research-based extension activities to provide policy tools and training for local governments," so that officials can enact policies that will link consumers in food deserts to local farmers. …

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