Dr. Samina Raja’s first memory of food is sitting in her mom’s garden in Kashmir as a young girl on a hot summer day eating watermelon and reading books. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that she has parlayed an appreciation for fresh, locally grown food and a love of learning into a trailblazing career in food systems planning at the University at Buffalo (UB).
In the mid-1990’s, Samina arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to earn her Ph.D. in urban planning and became a mentee of the late Jerry Kaufman, a prolific and pioneering food system educator. That relationship changed the trajectory of her career.
“It became clear very quickly how urban planners make decisions about land and make decisions about what is important in our communities and those decisions don’t always account for what people need in their lives, like fresh, locally grown food. It made me think about how we value land – and why farming isn’t always included – that was a reckoning about my own professional choices,” said Samina.
After earning her doctorate, she was offered an opportunity to teach statistics at UB and after a campus visit, Samina fell in love with Buffalo and accepted the job. At that time there were no food system courses offered at UB but slowly over time, Samina developed her work and demonstrated why thinking and teaching about food systems is critically important. In addition to establishing food system graduate programs at UB, she also founded the UB Food Lab, an internationally recognized research center focused on community food systems.
Given Samina’s work, she was one of the first people asked to participate in the Western New York Regional Food System Initiative as a Regional Advisory Council member, now known as FFWNY. The effort launched in January 2021 with a goal of creating a comprehensive plan that assessed our food system and charted a path forward. Samina jumped at the chance to embark on a collaborative process with other local leaders to address the food system in her own backyard.
“I've done a lot of food system plans, a lot of training, policy legislation, writing, all of that. It was fun to have the opportunity to join like-minded colleagues across Western New York in this work. It is a joy for a scholar to have the opportunity to dive into the real work of making change in the community.”
The impact of Samina and the UB Food Lab team’s work was almost immediate. A food system mapping project that they developed for FFWNY was used to help the community in the aftermath of the horrific racially-motivated mass shooting on May 14, 2022. With the tool, anyone can access the data to show food resources in East Buffalo that clearly illustrate the need.
With the FFWNY plan now complete and funding in place, the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG), an affiliate of Southern Tier West, is responsible for seeing through the report’s recommendations and Samina is looking forward to continue building strong relationships based on trust across food sector lines in Western New York through the effort.
To learn more, visit FoodFutureWNY.org.
Copyright @ 2021 NY Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
A non-profit organization of Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board
For more information about this project and how you can be involved, contact:
New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
4039 Route 219, Suite 200, Salamanca NY 14779
Kristen Tim, Chief Executive Officer
716-945-5301 ext. 2206
Kimberly LaMendola, Chief Programming Officer
716-945-5301 ext. 2211
Western New York Foundation
2495 Main Street, Suite 464, Buffalo NY 14214