Lecture focuses on food system, society

The Community Health Alliance hosted Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning at University at Buffalo on Thursday April 25, who addressed the importance of urban planning and food consumption.

Raja’s lecture, “Planning Communities to Promote Food Access,” focused primarily on what she called “the food system” and how strongly it impacts society in terms of health and economics.

“Urban planning has to do with how you build communities so that people can live the lives they choose,” Raja said. “Planners in the United States work in many different settings. Some work for the government and many work for nonprofit [organizations].”

Raja spoke about how many communities are left to rely on convenience stores in order to eat, even though the poorly orchestrated food system fails to provide adequate nutrition to those living in low-income households.

According to Raja, many people are unaware of the system’s impact on society due to its complex and industrialized nature. She said public awareness of the industrialized food industry is highly limited, as many only see what is made available in local convenience stores and supermarkets and others are unaware of how little some farmers actually make in comparison to the money that major food corporations make.

“When you look at the sales revenue … you’ll see that the people who grow the food that we eat, they make up a small share of the overall sales revenue [of food] in the United States,” Raja said. “Who makes a lot of money? It’s wholesalers, food processors … For every dollar that we spend, only 12 cents go back to the farmer.”

Due to mass production, Raja said it is cheaper for most American families to purchase processed food and artificially sweetened products instead of fruits and vegetables. She spoke about several low-income communities that have taken a stand against these circumstances and have begun to grow their own produce in community gardens.

Raja focused on the Massachusetts Avenue Project, which promotes the growth of diverse local food systems, access to affordable and nutritious food and food system education through the use of community gardens. According to Raja, M.A.P. is currently making an impact on the Buffalo area, which Raja said has very low rates of produce consumption among children.

Raja said that during the City of Buffalo’s comprehensive planning process in 2006, there was no mention of food. “It was illegal to have an urban farm, it was illegal to have chickens on the farm … It was illegal to be doing all of the activities that M.A.P. does.”

According to Raja, children in Buffalo worked with M.A.P. to launch a policy campaign to educate people about the importance of food in terms of public policy.

Despite the positive aspects of community gardens and organizations like M.A.P., Raja addressed the reluctance among urban planners to take community gardens into account when outlining the makings of a future city. She said that if more people paid attention to the country’s methods of food production, the public might convince urban planners to allow space for community gardens. In turn, this might prevent unhealthy eating habits among low-income households.