MUP student Erin Sweeney wins Fulbright to study food systems planning in Singapore

Erin Sweeney conducts field work in Odisha in India through a research program led by the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab and UB's Community for Global Health Equity.

Erin Sweeney conducts field work in Odisha in India through a research program led by the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab and UB's Community for Global Health Equity. Photo credit: Sumar Kumar

by Brenna Zanghi

Published May 15, 2018

Erin Sweeney, who will graduate this week with her Master of Urban Planning degree, has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholar Research Award to advance her research in food systems planning in support of small-scale farmers in Singapore.

Sweeney will receive the Fulbright Urban Planning and Sustainable Design Award, which offers American scholars opportunities to better understand alternative and innovative approaches to urban planning and sustainable design practices in Singapore.

The grant is only the latest in a long line of awards and accomplishments for Sweeney. In her two years at UB she has coordinated university-wide student and faculty research workshops on food equity and led fieldwork in Odisha, India, to study the impacts of urbanization, globalization and climate change on smallholder farmers - work she pursued as a research assistant with the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab and UB's Community for Global Health Equity. She is a Western New York Prosperity Fellow and has held a leadership role with UB's Graduate Planning Student Association. 

In Singapore, Sweeney will explore urban planning policy solutions in support of small-scale producers and a more resilient local food supply for Singapore. Collaborating with scholars, planners and farmers throughout the country, she will develop place-based models for food system policy that protects the economic viability of small-scale farming and inspires food-resiliency planning in similar settings. 

Sweeney’s roots in farming and food access extend back to her childhood. She grew up in a small farming community of Geneseo in Western New York, witnessing directly the importance of farming and a strong food system on a region’s economic health and wellbeing.

Prior to UB, Sweeney managed an inter-generational community garden, developed regional support for SNAP incentives at farmers markets, and integrated nutrition curriculum into after-school and gifted youth programs. Her main goal was always to support community-led and -owned development through just food systems. Through this work Sweeney met Jennifer Whittaker, a 2015 MUP alum and former Food Lab researcher, who inspired Sweeney to pursue her interests through UB's MUP program, which offers research concentrations in food systems planning.

Sweeney immediately connected with the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, which is directed by Samina Raja, PhD, a professor of urban planning and internationally recognized scholar in the field. The Food Lab works with a broad range of local, national, and international partners to develop local policy solutions for equitable food systems and healthy, sustainable communities.

This past winter, Sweeney conducted field visits in the rural state of Odisha in India to better understand the challenges smallholder farmers face in the Global South; her efforts were part of the Plan-REFUGE (Planning for Regenerative, Equitable Food systems in Urbanizing Global Environments) pilot project of the Food Lab and CGHE.

“In all of her work, Erin has drawn attention to the importance of equity and inclusion as central tenets of planning research and practice. I look forward to seeing her continued leadership in food systems planning and research,” says Raja, who has served as a mentor to Sweeney these past two years.

Sweeney has diverse experience working in community settings around the globe. In 2009, she spent a semester abroad exploring micro-loan financing to support farmers and sutsainable community growth. Five years later, Sweeney spent a year teaching in an after school program in Bogotá, Colombia.

“Due to my experiences in the field and mentorship from Dr. Raja in the Food Lab, I go into any community with a strong sense of humility, especially when I’m not from that culture,” says Sweeney. “I’m only there to offer my capacity as a resource to community members who already have a vision for the changes they wish to see. It is essential that as a researcher coming in from the outside, I conduct mutually beneficial, accountable research with community members, building on existing assets they identify.”

Erin Sweeney with her research director and mentor Samina Raja

Erin Sweeney with her research director and mentor Samina Raja, principal investigator of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab at UB's School of Architecture and Planning.

Sweeney says she will bring the same sense of humility and readiness to learn to Singapore. Underlying her policy research in the human experience, she will interview 30-40 farmers to understand current obstacles and identify urban planning policy solutions. Sweeney will also interview staff and policymakers from local agencies such as the Ministries of National Development and Environment and Water Resources. Her findings will be documented in a series of policy briefs.

Sweeney attributes her success and understanding of global engagement and equitable research practices to the support of numerous colleagues and friends. Among them: Samina Raja; Korydon Smith, EdD, professor of architecture and associate director of CGHE; Pavani K. Ram, MD, associate professor of epidemiology and director of CGHE; Lisa Vahapoğlu, PhD, program coordinator of CGHE (who first encouraged Sweeney to apply for the Fulbright); Jessica Scates, administrative coordinator of CGHE; and the CGHE team of graduate assistants. She says she is also incredibly grateful to her Food Lab staff and student colleagues, past and present, for challenging her to think beyond her own assumptions and narrative. “They helped me believe this was possible,” Sweeney says.