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Student Leads Way on Rural Food Systems Planning, Earns SUNY Chancellor’s Award

SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence recipient Jennifer Whittaker (left) with mentor Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning.

Already a published scholar and research pioneer in rural food systems planning, urban planning student Jennifer Whittaker (MUP ‘15) was recently honored with the distinguished SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence.

Whittaker says she wouldn’t be here without urban and regional planning faculty member Samina Raja, who directs the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (Food Lab) and recruited Whittaker into the MUP program after the two met four years ago as community garden volunteers in Buffalo. 

As a research associate and graduate fellow in food systems planning, Whittaker has played a key role in the Food Lab’s work on “Growing Food Connections,” a $3.96 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to connect consumers and family farms in food-insecure communities across the U.S. The grant’s focus on both rural and urban areas was a critical factor for Whittaker, who grew up in rural Chautauqua County. “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. With Raja as a co-author, Whittaker is finalizing an article on public policy responses to rural food insecurity and declining agricultural viability. Just this past year she presented her research to the national conference of the American Planning Association.