UB Graduate Students Help Buffalo's West Side Assess the Quality of Its Food Supply

Release Date: January 23, 2004

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Buffalo's West Side neighborhoods are lively places -- ethnically diverse, multilingual, with a socially active, constantly changing population, more than 40 percent of which comprises first and second generation Hispanic, Asian and, now, many east African families.

A large number of West Siders are aging or poor or both, however, and 43 percent of them do not own cars. So when the area's two large grocery stores announced last summer that they would close within months, it posed a serious threat to the West Side's access to good food.

It is an area where diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other illnesses caused in part or whole by poor nutrition already are rampant, so these events raised an alarm among West Side community activists and not-for-profit agencies.

One of them, the Massachusetts Avenue Project, headed by Diane Picard, turned to Samina Raja, a noted community planner, and assistant professor in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, and asked for help.

Raja designed a planning studio in which 11 UB graduate students in urban and regional planning would examine the West Side's food security system and make recommendations on how it can be improved and strengthened.

Raja says food security is a very important issue that affects everyone, although most American cities give very little attention to it. She became interested in the topic while studying for her doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"Food security is high when nutritious, affordable and culturally appropriate food is easily accessible by a specific community," she explains. "If a food distribution system does not meet those criteria, then it is insecure, even if those in the community are not literally 'hungry.'"

A long-term, high-quality, comprehensive food system, then, calls for a secure, easily available, affordable, fresh and varied diet. A high-fat, high-carbohydrate expensive diet will not do, no matter how quickly and easily it can be accessed at the corner deli, fast-food restaurant or food pantry.

Raja expressed her surprise at apparent government disinterest in food management systems, particularly in urban areas.

"A healthy and secure food system is something that requires a great deal of government involvement," she says. "Our food systems have been entrusted to the free market, however, and the infrastructures for sustainable food sources are missing in cities and there frequently is an absence of competition among sellers. So food is not only high-priced, but sometimes not as varied and fresh as it should be."

Raja and her students looked broadly and deeply into the region's food development and distribution systems and the way they affect Buffalo's West Side residents. They began with the history of the region's farms -- How are they doing? What do they produce? How do produce, meat and dairy products get to stores? Who owns various operations? How has the system changed?

They studied the residents' nutritional needs, the requirements of preferred ethnic diets; their incomes; the number, location and kinds of food stores to which they have access, and the quality of the food offered for sale in them.

They produced dozens of regional, city and neighborhood maps, charts, timelines, illustrations of distribution and transportation systems, visual demonstrations of food consumption, costs and health-related issues from which they were able to draw their conclusions.

Some students explored transportation issues on the West Side, where bus routes, they found, often are several blocks from homes and not always well-linked to farmers' markets or distant grocery stores that carry fresh produce or the range of frozen vegetables, fruit and meat products necessary for the good health of residents.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are of particular interest to newcomers like the Somali-Bantu, they explain, whose numbers are increasing on Buffalo's West Side and whose cuisine requires fresh, high-quality produce, which is hard to obtain.

The students found that "Mom and Pop" stores are disappearing and while they may not be ideal (such stores have limited stock and notably lack fresh produce), they often carry items necessary to specific ethnic diets and try to keep prices down. Convenience stores, many corner delis and chain pharmacies, they found, inflate prices to the point where a lot of West Siders can barely afford to shop in them at all.

Large grocery stores "may" have produce that is fresh, but they are few and often inconveniently located. Two of the community's larger groceries closed in December, increasing residents' long travel times and limiting the amount of groceries they can bring home in one trip. The students found, for instance, that it takes 78 minutes one-way via public transportation for the average West Side resident to get to the closest large grocery store.

When they get to a small store, what they find may be no prize. In looking at 26 West Side grocery stores of all sizes, students found two large chains that sold perishables that were one day from their expirations date or beyond it.

Raja and Picard both are proponents of community gardens, both as a source of fresh produce and a stimulus to community revitalization and stronger neighborhoods.

They point out that Buffalo has plenty of vacant land for such gardens, unlike cities such as Chicago, where urban lots are rapidly developed.

In her experience, Raja says gardening could address a lot of issues that confront urban neighborhoods -- the eradication of unsightly vacant lots; an increase in property values; the production and availability of cheap, fresh produce, and the opportunity for hands-on agricultural, biological, chemical and food-chain education.

"The more local the food production," she says, "the greater the economic impact on the neighborhoods involved -- and even the region involved. If we purchase the food we grow instead of importing it from elsewhere, 'our' producers derive an economic benefit. This is true nationally and locally."

Community gardening is a strategy, Raja says, but she and her students agree that it is not a solution to the problem of an inadequate food system.

What the area needs, they say, are more farmers' markets and locally owned and operated stores that sell fresh meats, produce, and products like spices and grains of interest to particular ethnic groups.

"The stores should offer organic options, too, like the Lexington Food Co-op and many grocery stores do. Food-related businesses have an economic impact on a community. Food production could be localized to greater effect," she says.

"Above all, what we need is education about food production before things improve here," says Raja and her students agree.

"In an urban community suffering from poor diet and the diseases it causes and in need of an economic boost, our goal," she says, "was to demonstrate the feasibility of a food system that does not rely on sub-standard grocery stores, but actually can enhance the local economy while offering healthier, less-expensive options than what is available now."

The goal is to get people thinking about long-term planning and developing a community vision for a food system that meets their needs and may be a model for other neighborhoods suffering from the same difficulties.

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