Category Archives: Research

Critical food policy literacy: Conceptualizing community municipal food policy engagement

Food policies should be informed by those who they intend to serve, but policy-making processes remain exclusive to privileged voices, knowledge, and experiences. This article bridges food and policy scholarship with the critical literacy work of Paulo Freire to answer: how do we understand literacies tied to food policy? What does (or, what could) it mean to be food policy literate? This article proposes five principles for conceptualizing critical food policy literacy that support food system transformations.

The paper suggests that efforts to promote critical food policy literacy must facilitate communities to (a) “read the world,” (b) “read the word,” (c) be critically aware of food policy processes and systems, (d) learn contextually and through authentic practice, and (e) enable people to negotiate and transform the world (their context) collectively. 

Read the full paper here DOI:

What do people need to know before they can transform municipal food policies?

New research by UB Food Lab member Carol E Ramos-Gerena in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 



Food policies should be informed by those who they intend to serve, but policy-making processes remain exclusive to privileged voices, knowledge, and experiences. This article bridges food and policy scholarship with the critical literacy work of Paulo Freire to answer: how do we understand literacies tied to food policy? What does (or, what could) it mean to be food policy literate? In a new JAFSCD article, Carol E. Ramos-Gerena proposes five principles for conceptualizing critical food policy literacy that support food system transformations. 


The paper suggests that efforts to promote critical food policy literacy must facilitate communities to (a) “read the world,” (b) “read the word,” (c) be critically aware of food policy processes and systems, (d) learn contextually and through authentic practice, and (e) enable people to negotiate and transform the world (their context) collectively. 


Possessing knowledge on engaging with food policy processes is not commensurate with actual engagement. Thus, structural barriers to community participation must also be addressed. Food system planners and educators, particularly at the municipal level, should support locally-based citizen food organizations to engage in food policy. This support must go beyond assessing communities’ food policy literacy. Instead, it must intend to bridge the gap to ensure critical readiness for food policy engagement. 

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Community-Centered, Health, Equitable, Ecological, and Regional Food System Mapping Project (CHEER)

The CHEER project seeks to make spatial data regarding the regional food system of Western New York more accessible to the public and a wide range of stakeholders through the creation and management of an online GIS mapping dashboard. This project builds on, expands, and formalizes the Buffalo food system mapping done by the Seeding Resilience project in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Food Lab members research, collate, and map data that pertain to the nine domains of the food system in Western New York, as well as summative data about the regional food system and emergency food system. The nine domains are 1) food production, 2) aggregation and wholesale, 3) food processing, 4) food retail, 5) food service, 6) institutional food procurement, 7) transportation and logistics, 8) management of wasted food and food loss, and 9) acquisition, preparation, & eating.


The CHEER mapping dashboard is participatory and interactive: community members can submit their “food system stories” to the dashboard, ensuring that the maps reflect Western New Yorkers’ lived experience of the food system. Furthermore, computer science researchers in the Food Lab are developing machine-learning programs that can identify fruits and vegetables in photos of produce displays. This will allow the dashboard to create a real-time image of the available foods in a community based on user-submitted photos.


The CHEER project supports Food Future Western New York, a regional food system assessment and planning initiative (part of Build Back Better WNY) for the nine counties of Western New York: Allegany, Cattaragus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Monroe, Niagara, Orleans, and Wyoming. As part of the CHEER project, Food Lab researchers are conducting a social network analysis to understand how the regional planning process built and strengthened personal and professional networks within the Western New York food system.

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Growing Food Policy From the Ground Up (GFPGU)

Why this project?

Urban food systems have the potential to provide locally produced, affordable and healthy foods to low-income communities of color. Urban agriculture reduces transportation emissions and sewer outflows, mitigates urban heat island effect, creates jobs, greens and beautifies urban spaces, reintroduces farming to youth and adults of color, generates amenity and property values, and promotes social cohesion. Local governments can help urban food systems reach this potential through a variety of mechanisms including zoning land for farming, tax credits, and grants for urban growers. Yet, policymakers rarely enact these policies, and when they do it is often without input from growers of color. 

Urban food systems and urban growers face unique challenges. Urban farmers must compete with housing and retail developers for expensive land. Urban lots often have limited access to energy and water, and are covered by restrictive zoning ordinances. Local governments often incentivize land development that, on the surface, generate property taxes at the expense of other benefits. Additionally, municipal policies give little consideration to the long term balance of fiscal impacts — the net of revenues and expenditures incurring from land development. The constraints are amplified for growers of color who are excluded from accessing land, capital, information and other resources.

Experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic have illustrated the need for well-functioning urban food systems. Design of such systems ought to be informed by experiences of community networks, especially communities of color who are impacted by malfunctioning food systems. 

The Growing Food Policy from the Ground Up (GFPGU) Project is a collaborative effort to support urban growers of color in Buffalo, NY and Minneapolis, MN. Improved policy awareness helps urban growers better access land, water and resources. Ultimately, urban food systems and grower-policymaker networks lead to healthier, vibrant urban communities.

What communities is the project focused on?

The project is focused on neighborhoods of color in the cities of Buffalo, NY and Minneapolis, MN.

What is the project doing?

The GFPGU team is executing a multi-year action-research project that combines action on the ground with research. The project will support growers of color in Buffalo and Minneapolis through capacity building efforts and mini-grants. The initiative will also amplify the power of social networks in transforming urban food systems and urban food policy. The project has three key aims to:

  1. Conduct a retrospective examination that documents the nature, extent, and intensity of social networks in UFS, and their role in facilitating food systems level change
  2. Examine the disconnects between local government policy networks and food system networks, especially those affecting urban growers of color; and
  3. Develop and test the role of historically-informed, community-led, and technologically savvy methods in engaging urban growers to emerge as leaders in local policy networks.

Using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods, the research team is studying the role of social networks and social capital in urban food systems. Working with community partners in Buffalo and Minneapolis — cities with strong community-led urban agriculture organizations — the researchers are studying current urban food systems policy networks for their organizing capabilities. The research, which is being co-produced by university and community partners, is taking place mainly in areas that are historically communities of color. The team is also examining the divides between local government networks and urban food systems networks that limit urban agriculture.

Using this information, the community partners and researchers will work with urban growers, particularly growers of color, to develop cooperative strategies to engage with local governments. These efforts include peer trainers with experience in engaging local governments, microgrants and developing urban farming tools that extend the growing season.

After putting the strategies into action, researchers will evaluate their effectiveness in empowering growers’ engagement in building new social networks between growers and policymakers. Researchers will also determine whether these networks have resulted in projects and policies favorable to urban farming and growers’ capabilities.

Who drives this project?

The project is co-produced by a team of community and university researchers and partners. The team of university researchers includes Martha Bohm (UB), Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah (UB), Fernando Burga (UMN),  Yeeli Mui (Johns Hopkins), and Samina Raja (UB). Community-focused work is led by Allison DeHonney (UFV), Michelle Horowitz (AFC),  Darryl Lindsey (AFC), Queen Frye, Diane Picard (MAP), and Rebekah Williams (FFS).

Who supports this project?

The project is supported by a $999,680 award through FFAR’s Seeding Solutions program. Funding from FFAR is being matched by the University at Buffalo, Johns Hopkins University (with support from the Bloomberg American Health Initiative), the University of Minnesota, Appetite For Change, Massachusetts Avenue Project and Urban Fruits & Veggies.

Contact.  Reach out to the project coordinator Carol Ramos at for more information.  

Resources for residents in neighborhoods east of Main Street in Buffalo

In Buffalo, this project focuses on the following neighborhoods East of Main Street: Delavan Grider, Kensington-Bailey, Masten Park, Pratt-Willert, Broadway Filmore, Fruit Belt, and MLK Park. We recognize that residents in the neighborhoods have a number of food-related and ancillary needs. Linked here is a document with supportive services for people who are participating in the GFPGU project.



Food Lab researchers release major U.N. report on food systems planning

Researchers from the University at Buffalo Food Lab were the driving force behind the publication today of a major report that details strategies local governments in low- and middle-income countries can use to create more innovative and equitable community food systems.

The 164-page report — titled “Local government planning for community food systems” — was published in early February 2021 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a United Nations agency that leads international efforts to defeat hunger.

Cover of a major report published by the United Nations in February that was written by UB researchers.

“To my knowledge, this is one of the earliest documents outlining how local governments can take action to create innovative and equitable food systems in low- and middle-income countries,” said Samina Raja, PhD, director of the UB Food Lab, who shepherded the initiative.

The report was co-produced by researchers and community partners in the case study countries, along with authors Raja, Erin Sweeney, Yeeli Mui and Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah of UB’s Community for Global Health Equity and the Food Lab. It includes contributions from 10 students and six community partners from Ghana, Jamaica, and India.

Sweeney coordinated the work in Odisha (India), while Mui led in Kerala, India, and Frimpong Boamah in Ghana. Mui was a postdoc at UB when the project started and is now an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

UB researchers were the driving force behind this report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

A food system is the rich and complex web through which a community gets its food.

Despite major developments, local governments in low- and middle-income countries continue to face significant challenges in integrating food security, nutrition and sustainable food systems in their agenda, FAO directors Anna Lartey and Vimlendra Sharan note in the foreword to the report.

“This publication invites us to rethink food systems and supply chains through the lens of a ‘community,’ as a reminder that people and their everyday practices and relationships with food are central to the design of these processes,” they write.

The report comprises six sections featuring contributions from UB and other global food systems researchers. Topics covered include describing the many ways in which local governments influence a community’s food system, an overview of the field of food systems planning, examples of local government policies from across the globe, and case studies from a number of low- and middle-income countries where food systems present an opportunity for equitable innovation.

“In its conclusion, the report reinforces the critical role of community food systems for broader social transformation in cities and regions,” says Raja, who also serves as co-director of UB’s Community for Global Health Equity.

The report is unique in that it is centered around the experiences of smallholder farmers in low- and middle-income countries. These farmers are responsible for growing food for the world and yet they are often the most food insecure, Raja points out.

“It is with this premise that we went about this work,” she says, adding that the team interviewed smallholder farmers in Ghana, India and Jamaica. “It became certain that it is impossible to prepare plans and policies without understanding the successes, challenges and adaptations made by smallholder farmers to do their job and survive. They feed the world, they fight climate change, they protect our ecologies — smallholder farmers are truly on the ‘frontline.’”

Raja says local governments have the ability and a responsibility to collaborate with stakeholders to harness and amplify the opportunities available within their jurisdiction to develop more innovative and equitable community food systems.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to food systems planning,” she says. “Each community’s opportunities and challenges are unique. Building community trust, designing inclusive planning processes, and conducting contextually scoped community food system assessments that center smallholder farmers’ experiences are key to planning, strengthening, and leveraging food systems for community well-being in low- and middle-income countries.”

The report was the result of a collaboration between FAO and UB, which have partnered to build the capacity of local governments to engage in food systems planning. UB began work with partners at FAO in 2016 with an expert summit focused on drawing attention to food in the New Urban Agenda, an initiative of the U.N. that aims for a better quality of life in the urbanizing world.

With support from FAO, researchers at the UB Food Lab are conducting transdisciplinary research in Ghana, India and Jamaica to document opportunities and challenges in planning for food systems, especially from the perspective of smallholder farmers.

“UB’s Community for Global Health Equity, which supports UB Food Lab’s global work, is committed to supporting those who most influence global food equity – leaders, organizations and policymakers who can affect systemic change,” said Venu Govindaraju, PhD, UB vice president for research and economic development.

“The FAO-UB partnership accelerates our faculty’s ability to translate their research in the domain of community food systems into policy and action,” Govindaraju added.

Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation for Equitable Community Food Systems

In recognition of food-related inequities facing minority communities, United Way of Buffalo & Erie County developed the Community Food Systems Grant (CFSG) program in 2017 to implement strategies that promote food equity and food sovereignty in the city of Buffalo and the greater Buffalo area. The CFSG program goes beyond increasing people’s physical access to good food to advancing equity and sovereignty in the food system, amplifying marginalized people’s agency, resources, and capabilities to use the food system for their own health and wellbeing. The CFSG program aims to foster ongoing collaboration within the food security network in the community, improve access to healthy foods, create food-related job opportunities, promote food entrepreneurship, strengthen food skills, and establish food policy that supports the above initiatives. With funding support from the General Mills Foundation, United Way selected 13 community organizations – those of which are uniquely positioned to promote systems change in the region – to receive CFSG funding to strengthen the city’s food system. The Food Lab is working closely with the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County to document the impact of the CFSG program on the city of Buffalo. Results from this evaluation will inform local stakeholders as well as broader food systems work nationally.

Immigrants And Food: Role Of Ethnic Markets In Transforming And Leveraging Food Systems

The Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI) is a non-profit organization working to create opportunities and success through community building, economic development, and education. Since its creation in 2011, WEDI’s West Side Bazaar has provided a hands-on food entrepreneurship program empowering low-income residents, particularly from Buffalo’s culturally rich yet economically distressed West Side community, to start and expand businesses serving inexpensive, culturally relevant cuisines. Along with a small business incubator, the West Side Bazaar is also a startup accelerator, a community meeting space, and a public market. With a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, WEDI is in the process of expanding this operation into a 10,000-square-foot space, featuring a larger shared commercial kitchen kitchen, increased storage, and retail spaces for both service-oriented, product, and apparel companies. This project will empower WEDI’s clients to self-sustainability in business and food. The Food Lab is evaluating the West Side Bazaar’s expansion to help understand the role immigrant food vendors play in Buffalo’s food supply chain, with particular regard to procurement from the city-regional supply chain. Data is collected through semi-structured interviews with vendors in the West Side Bazaar, and results will be shared back with WEDI annually over the course of the project.

Dealing with Disparities in Food Acquisition Among Refugees (DDFAR)

Dealing with Disparities in Food Acquisition Among Refugees (DDFAR) is a two-year pilot research project (2016-2018) that explores the influence of social, environmental, cultural and personal determinants on food acquisition practices among Americans from Burma living in Buffalo, New York. Working in partnership with a community advisory group (CAG), the research team is documenting the ways in which Americans from Burma access culturally acceptable foods, their perception of health risks, and how they are changing the food environment in the city of Buffalo. Funded in part by the University at Buffalo’s Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity (CGHE), DDFAR utilizes a transdisciplinary approach, engaging team members from diverse disciplines including urban and regional planning (Dr. Samina Raja and Alex Judelsohn), public health (Dr. Heather Orom), social work (Dr. Isok Kim), and medicine (Dr. Roberto Diaz del Carpio). CAG members include representatives of the Burmese and Karen communities as well as organizations that serve refugee communities.

Members of the Community Advisory Group:

  • Melissa Fratello (Grassroots Gardens of Western New York)
  • Daniel Lawd (Karen Society of Buffalo)
  • Chan Myae Thu (community health worker)
  • Jeff Oglieve (Journey’s End Refugee Services)
  • Steven Sanyu (Burmese Community Services, Inc.)
  • Win Min Thant (Buffalo State Community Academic Center)
  • Zaw Win (WASH Project)

Ongoing contributor and volunteer, Rosie DeVito, MPH graduate.

Revisiting Revitalization: Community Health Lessons from Baltimore’s Vacants to Value Initiative

By Yeeli Mui, PhD, MPH, University at Buffalo, State University of New York; Brian Bieretz, MA, Urban Institute; Joel Gittelsohn, PhD, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Joseph Schilling, JD, LLM, Urban Institute

Neighborhoods undergo constant change when local governments, philanthropists, and community organizations invest resources to mitigate declining trajectories. The success of such efforts, however, is often measured in economic terms, such as through property value increases, with less attention to the health of residents who remain in the community.

This research aims to shift those priorities by examining a range of community health impacts from a strategic revitalization effort in Baltimore City: the Vacants to Value (V2V) initiative. While local studies have assessed some dimensions of the V2V initiative, including process and policy effectiveness, the initiative’s community health impacts have yet to be explored. To address this gap, the research team developed three case examples of V2V in different neighborhoods in order to examine communities’ expectations, engagement with V2V, and how community health could be better achieved. The report offers a preliminary scan of V2V’s community health impacts, to set the stage for a future Health Impact Assessment (HIA), a tool commonly used by planners and other decision-makers to evaluate potential positive and negative public health impacts of a plan, policy, or initiative.

This report includes five sections:

Section 1 provides a brief literature review on the relationships between vacant properties and community health, summarizes prior studies of the V2V initiative, and explains the usefulness of Health Impact Assessments in the context of neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Section 2 describes the methodology of this study.

Based on our cross-case analysis, Section 3 compares findings regarding V2V’s community health impacts across three communities.

Section 4 proposes a framework for a future Health Impact Assessment of new Community Development Clusters that V2V decision-makers can use before the start of revitalization efforts.

Section 5 offers recommendations to local government for strengthening V2V’s revitalization process by advancing community health in more place- and health-conscious ways in the future.

Finally, the Annex of the report includes a deep dive into community health lessons from Baltimore City’s V2V initiative in three different neighborhoods:

1. Restoring the Social Fabric: Challenges and Opportunities to Strengthen the Revitalization Process and Community Health in Park Heights, Baltimore

2. Community-Driven Revitalization: Building on Historic Strengths to Restore and Preserve Community Health in Eager Street Commons, Baltimore

3. Coalition of the Willing: Advancing Community Health Through Collaborative Revitalization in Greenmount West, Baltimore