Published October 15, 2014
Food, food everywhere. But not a bite to eat.
That was the story in Buffalo leading up to the 21st century: Nestled in a region loaded with farms and orchards, the city nevertheless housed many neighborhoods where fresh fruits, meats and vegetables were in short supply.
So how, in just one decade, did Buffalo become a leader in urban agriculture, with some 60 community gardens coloring its postindustrial landscape?
All this, in one of America’s most impoverished cities.
It’s a story that matters for the Rust Belt — and the rest of the country, says Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning and lead author of a new case study of the topic in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.
“Food is critical to people’s well-being, and to understand how Buffalo has done this is an important lesson to understand for planners and other cities,” Raja says. “We are not Seattle or Madison, Wis., and what makes this case study interesting is that it shows what is possible in a resource-strapped city.”
The new study focuses on the nonprofit Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), which established the first urban farming project in Buffalo.
Buffalo’s narrative is compelling because activists managed to remove food from the shadows of urban planning, giving it a prominent place in efforts to rewrite land use and zoning laws, Raja says. It’s a big shift in thinking: Just a few years back, the city published a comprehensive plan that mentioned food four times in 134 pages, Raja and her co-authors write.
“What has happened in the U.S. — and, honestly, the world over — is that food has become this invisible sort of thing,” she says. “We have city departments devoted to electricity, sewers, roads, etc., but not food, which is one thing we all need to survive.”
Raja, PhD, is principal investigator of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab in the UB School of Architecture and Planning.
In the case study, she and other colleagues write that Buffalo’s food movement started outside of City Hall, with “Rust Belt radicals” farming vacant land in the early 2000s. From there, the effort blossomed into a full-on campaign to engage policymakers in amending local laws.
Change came quickly once it started: Milestones included a city ordinance approving urban chicken coops in 2010, and city resolutions supporting community gardens around the same time, according to the study. A draft of Buffalo’s new Green Code, which will govern land use and zoning, encourages urban agriculture on vacant land. Apiaries for beekeeping, greenhouses and farm stands are allowed by the code, which is under review.
Seven Ways to Get Food Noticed In Your City:
The new case study provides a blueprint for activism, listing seven ways the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) and partners put the conversation about food back on the table in Buffalo:
A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supported the study. Raja’s co-authors were Diane Picard, executive director of the Massachusetts Avenue Project, UB postdoctoral researcher Solhyon Baek and former UB master’s student Cristina Delgado.