'A Force of Transformation'

Emerging leader in food systems planning earns SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence

Jenny at the Food Bank of Western New York community garden

Whittaker tends to the community garden at the Food Bank of Western New York as a volunteer for the organization.

By Rachel Teaman

Published April 22, 2015

It didn’t take long for Samina Raja, a nationally recognized expert in food systems planning, to know Jennifer “Jenny” Whittaker was someone she wanted in her research lab.

The two first met four years ago through Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, where Raja served as a board member and Whittaker, an AmeriCorps volunteer just out of college, was managing programs for the organization’s 70 community gardens.

“Despite her young age, Jenny was wise, hardworking, professional, incredibly competent in her work, and deeply committed to community-based work,” says Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning and founding director of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, a leading center for research in this field. “I was so impressed by her across-the-board qualities that I asked her to apply to our [Master of Urban Planning] program.”

Jennifer Whittaker (left) with Samina Raja at the SUNY Chancellor's Award Ceremony in Albany earlier this month.

Jennifer Whittaker (left) with Samina Raja at the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence ceremony in Albany earlier this month.

Today, Whittaker is one of Raja's go-to research assistants for a national-scale food systems planning grant. Already a published scholar, she’s on the front line of food access and policy research for rural communities and recently co-authored Western New York’s first-ever food systems plan.

The emerging leader has now just been honored with a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence in recognition of her academic achievement and community leadership. She’s also the first urban planning student to receive the award since SUNY started the program in 2012.

Ever so modest, Whittaker says she owes it all to Raja. “She’s the reason I am here.”

Indeed.

Whittaker wasn’t even interested when Raja first suggested she apply to the MUP program. “At the time, I didn’t plan to go back to school at all,” she says. Having just earned her undergraduate degree in geography and international relations from SUNY College at Geneseo, she was exploring her options through travel and volunteering.

Yet food and health had always interested Whittaker, who grew up in Chautauqua County surrounded by dairy farms and orchards.

It was a year later when Raja called Whittaker with a proposition she couldn’t pass up. The Food Lab, along with the American Farmland Trust, Ohio State University and Cultivating Healthy Places, an international consulting business, had just won a $3.96 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with county-level governments across the U.S. to strengthen connections between food insecure communities and small and medium farmers. The effort, “Growing Food Connections,” included funding for a graduate fellowship with a full-tuition-plus-stipend award and the opportunity to serve as a researcher in the Food Lab.

“The project definitely drew me in,” says Whittaker, adding that Growing Food Connections’ balanced focus on rural and urban areas was a critical factor.

"Food insecurity is actually just as high in rural areas as it is in urban areas," she says, citing rural poverty and the relocation of grocers to big-box plazas, often far removed from the town center.

This rural “paradox” has become the focus of Whittaker’s research as she works under Raja and the Growing Food Connections team to create plans, policies and partnerships that support both family farms and consumer access to healthy food. Growing Food Connections will focus its efforts on eight communities across the U.S., from New Mexico to Maine, working on the ground with local government and grassroots organizations.

The idea of tailored policy is fundamental to the effort, adds Whittaker, particularly because food policy looks very different for urban and rural areas. “Urban policies don’t work for rural areas,” she says, referring to largely urban origins of the food movement. “There needs to be innovative, grassroots solutions tailored to rural communities.”

With Raja as a co-author, Whittaker is finalizing an article on public policy responses to rural food insecurity and declining agricultural viability. To be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, the research fills a major gap in literature on rural food systems planning solutions. Whittaker just presented her findings to planning practitioners at the 2015 American Planning Association conference and will present new research on rural food retail at the Agriculture and Human Values Conference this summer.

Whittaker exhibits the same drive when it comes to her coursework. During her first year in the MUP program, she developed a farm-to-school plan for her hometown – Frewsburg, Chautauqua County – to enrich school lunches with food grown by nearby farms. Working with the UB Regional Institute on One Region Forward, a regional sustainability planning effort, Whittaker co-authored a food access and justice plan for Western New York. Through focus group research in Buffalo Public Schools – an extracurricular endeavor – Whittaker found evidence that suggests enhanced federal nutritional standards for school lunches are being undermined at the local level. She’s handed the data over to local organizations and will submit her findings for publication.

Again, she reflects on Raja’s influence, both professionally and personally: “She’s invested in her students, both as a teacher and as a researcher. She’s influenced me tremendously in the work I do and the way I do it,” says Whittaker, adding that Raja, who exercises daily and tries to leave the lab by 5 p.m., is also a model for healthful living.

Raja, whose instincts about Whittaker have been dead on thus far, says she has no doubt Whittaker will be a leader in the profession. “Jenny is a force of transformation – she has demonstrated that force in her own life and in her WNY community. Given her performance so far, I expect Jenny to emerge as an outstanding national/international planner/scholar of repute someday.”