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.
For many years when Allison DeHonney was talking about policies, it was related to her executive roles at insurance companies. Now when she’s talking about policies, she’s focused on advocating for our local food system, specifically urban farming and ensuring access to fresh, locally grown food for communities in the City of Buffalo.
After a long, successful career in corporate America, Allison decided to start a side business in late 2013 called Urban Fruits & Veggies to connect locally grown food with underserved communities, especially in East Buffalo, and make fresh produce as accessible as possible to residents.
The initial plan was just to grow produce on an urban farm and distribute that produce in local neighborhoods. She had no intention of leaving her day job. However, her business quickly took root and Allison soon realized in addition to focusing on her business full-time, she also needed to create a non-profit, now known as Buffalo Go Green.
“I fall more in love with this work every year, as challenging and time consuming as it is, there's nothing that I'd rather be doing. And a lot of that is because of the people. I meet individuals who have no more money left on their EBT card, to local and state politicians and legislators, educators and other business owners and most everyone is so grateful for our products and services,” said Allison.
Allison's unique experience of a successful corporate career, turned urban farmer, provided her with a unique perspective as Regional Advisory Council member for the Western New York Regional Food System Initiative. She jumped right in to provide important feedback when the effort launched in January 2021 and was an integral part of the collaborative team that helped develop a comprehensive plan that assessed our regional food system. In addition to serving on the Council, she was an active member of two work groups: Farmers and Producers and Access, Equity and Sovereignty.
“Being a part of the Regional Advisory Council was a really great learning experience. It helped grow my network, I connected with folks that I probably would've never met. It was good to learn about the rural farming struggles, the struggles in the meat industry, the struggles in the dairy industry,” said Allison.
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 Allison is excited about the future of the work being implanted, understanding that this is a long-term systems effort.
“It's all such good work, and we do it for the betterment of every single one of us, because simply put, we all eat, and are unified by that fact,” said Allison.
To learn more and read some of the inspiring stories of other Regional Advisory Council members, visit FoodFutureWNY.org.
As a young girl growing up in the largely affluent village of East Aurora, Kristin was one of the few in her community experiencing food insecurity. She shares, “In elementary and middle school, I was one of a handful of kids in my community who qualified for [food stamps and] free lunch, but I never got [lunch] because I didn’t want to be judged by the kids I grew up with. I chose to go without eating than to be embarrassed.”
Fast forward to her 30s, Kristin began to recognize that it was not her responsibility to harbor shame or embarrassment about her experience. Rather, that she was harmed while at the intersection and mercy of several dysfunctional systems—including the food system. “No one should have to feel that way. Because we all need food, and healthy foods should be available to everybody. It should be done with dignity, not shame attached to it.” She shared.
Even in light of her individual and familial struggles, Kristin recognizes the privileges that she simultaneously held during that time that helped keep her and her family afloat. “I had good access to education. I lived in a walkable community. I started cleaning houses at 11 [in my community] to be able to afford things. So, in many ways, I look back and think, ‘Oh, I was lucky’.”
Collective formed two years later and now owns 37 acres of fertile, second-generation farmland in Orchard Park. Their mission of cultivating farmer-led and community-rooted agriculture and food systems to actualize the rights of under-resourced peoples comes with only three requirements:
“This system honors that every group comes from different cultural traditions and practices surrounding how they organize, how they share, and how they support one another. And that's not on us to tell them to do it differently.” Kristin says. “The current system operates under the idea that farmers are donating surplus vegetables or foods. And the thing is, no farmer, [especially those facing one or more forms of systemic oppression], can afford to do that.”
It was during this time that Lowe—a fundraiser for a community garden that supported an under-resourced elementary school in the city—began to ponder his own upbringing and further understand that the area’s food system in its current state is fundamentally flawed.
“This made me realize that I had a different experience growing up. I had access, and the kids I worked with didn't know that the tomato that they're using for meat sauce came in from the dirt—not just the corner store.” Lowe shared.
For his expertise in the Niagara Falls and greater Niagara County food system and his gift of community building, Lowe was asked to participate on the Regional Advisory Council the WNY Regional Food System Initiative, now known as Food Future WNY.
“I think it’s a great initiative, and the sky’s the limit with what we can accomplish,” Lowe said. “The right people are around the table.”
At the core of what guides his work both in the NFLFAP and for Food Future WNY is the crucial focus on grassroots representation and leadership by those who are a part of the community it affects—especially those who face systemic exclusion and oppression.
He shared, “If [the food system] doesn’t represent the people it’s supposed to serve, it’s going to start prioritizing profits over people. Then, there’s no difference between the current food system and the one we’re working toward.”
Select quotes have been edited for clarity.
When most of us look at a cheese stick, we simply think of a kid's snack. However, for Chris Noble, a cheese stick tells a very different story about harnessing the power of partnerships and creativity to create a sustainable new product line.
Chris' cheese story starts with the cows at his multi-generational family business, Noblehurst Farms, in Livingston County, New York. The cows are fed by grain grown on their land. The milk from those cows, and 7 other family-owned farms Noblehurst has partnered with, is then processed in their Creamery, which is powered by an anaerobic digester with the waste from those very cows, to create Craigs Creamery Cheese.
Clearly seeing the powerful impact of that collective effort, Chris accepted an invitation in 2020 to join the Regional Advisory Council (RAC) for Food Future WNY, a 9-county planning effort to strengthen the region's food system to achieve resilience, equity, strong economic performance, and reduced food insecurity. Chris saw this as an opportunity to connect with other leaders in the food system with different life experiences.
"By bringing together different players with different perspectives, we are seeing things differently and our work is blazing new trails. For me, I was able to make important connections with fellow council members such as Alex Wright in Buffalo and Chris Hartman at Headwater in Rochester. I've learned so much about diversity and equity by having producers, buyers, and users of products in the same room for discussions," said Chris.
Chris admits that as a farmer, you can tend to be insular and being a part of the RAC and the Working Group really broadened his horizons.
"I really hope that some of the ideas and solutions we are coming up with are funded and blossom. We must drive this effort forward in a way that's smart, cost-effective and sustainable for our region's food future," said Chris.
This storytelling project was made possible through funding from the WNY Foundation
When you think about all the roles a chef plays in the kitchen, from the prep work and planning to overseeing and executing a vision, you could consider Kimberly LaMendola one of the chefs for Food Future Western New York (FFWNY). Given that some of her earliest memories were in a kitchen cooking with her grandparents, it should come as no surprise that she took on a co-facilitator role in launching the collective work of FFWNY to build the sustainable food system we all aspire to have in our region.
"I grew up spending time with both sets of grandparents and watched how they harvested their food whether through growing or hunting. They were very resourceful. The meals we shared together around the table meant a lot to me. To this day, I take the time to prepare a meal and sit down to enjoy it," said Kimberly LaMendola, Regional Food Systems Manager at New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG).
Kimberly manages her backyard farm with 12 raised beds that produced over 20 different varieties of veggies last year.
In 2023, she and her wife are adding a flock of laying hens to their homestead.
Her road to the FFWNY work took a few turns along the way. Originally working in the health and human services field, she felt a calling back to her agricultural roots, specifically understanding all that goes into growing food for a group of people. However, that major didn't exist at the time, so she created her own degree in community and rural development at Empire State College and then earned a certificate from Colorado State in sustainable food systems. She launched her new career in the planning department at the Seneca Nation of Indians and then joined Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board 11 years ago.
When the WNY COVID-19 Community Response Fund decided to address the food system challenges, Kimberly's name kept coming up as an important person to talk to about how to lift the effort off the ground.
The Western New York Regional Food System Initiative, now known as Food Future WNY, launched in January 2021 and Kimberly's first task as co-facilitator was participating in interviews with potential consulting partners for the effort and SCALE, a four-person national team was hired for the collective effort. Over the next 18 months, SCALE engaged more than 70 regional food system leaders in a Regional Advisory Council and five issue-specific Working Groups to create a report that detailed actionable ideas to move the regional food system effort forward.
With the comprehensive report now complete and funding in place, the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG), an affiliate of Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board, is charting the course forward to see through the recommendations. To learn more, visit FoodFutureWNY.org.
This storytelling project was made possible through funding from the WNY Foundation
You would be hard pressed to find a more "up-beet" person in the Western New York Food Regional Food System Initiative work than Chris Hartman. Yes, beets are his favorite food because of their underdog status in the food world, but his passion for educating people about the importance of how our food is grown and consumed is infectious.
Chris says he was always interested in teaching but not in a traditional classroom. During his senior year at Vassar College in the Hudson Valley, he landed the only internship he could find doing community-based education and it was at a farm run by three nuns. They allowed him to live there and learn the art of farming alongside them. He graduated, traveled a bit but was drawn right back to that farm to help it grow.
"Those were super formative years for me. Learning from the nuns how to feed the community in need around you while engaging youth in that process was such a privilege," said Chris.
After a few years on the farm, Chris was a newlywed looking to earn a master's degree and start a family with his new wife closer to home in Rochester, NY, all while keeping education and farming his north star. During grad school, he started a farmers market in his neighborhood. On opening day, he hoped for 60 people but 500 showed up. He knew there was an appetite for better understanding where your food came from and access to locally grown food. That led to another project where he created workplace-based delivery of fresh, local grown produce in downtown Rochester and he included local high school students in developing it. All of this eventually led to him starting Headwater, which sources food from over 200 regional family farms and businesses to distribute to individuals, families, chefs and institutional food service throughout New York State.
Chris' understanding of the interconnectivity of the food system made him an excellent candidate for the Regional Advisory Council (RAC) for Food Future WNY. A 9-county planning effort, led by the SCALE consultant team, to strengthen the region's food system to achieve resilience, equity, strong economic performance, and reduced food insecurity.
"I knew I wanted to participate in this effort right when I was asked because the SCALE team was made up of some of the most interesting national thinkers right now in the food system space," said Chris. "As I got into the work, I was impressed with the plan and the approach, it was methodical and disciplined and I appreciated that we made some adjustments at the halfway point."
This storytelling project was made possible through funding from the WNY Foundation
Buffalo faced one of its darkest days on May 14, 2022, when the only grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood was the target of a racist mass shooting. Long before that horrific day, Alex Wright saw clearly how institutional racism led to disinvestment and a lack of access to healthy, affordable food in his hometown and was doing something about it. Alex has been developing solutions and building community around his vision - and that vision stretches far beyond East Buffalo.
A few years later he took his idea one step further by creating Blegacy Farms when he bought a 22-acre parcel of land in Franklinville, NY, and started offering people of color the opportunity to grow fruits and vegetables on a plot of the farm and work towards ownership of that land. The risk was low knowing the Co-op would be an immediate customer and would link them to other potential customers.
"The Food Future work is so important to me because I want to make sure that as we're building, and as we're thinking about the future of food, we are doing it in an inclusive way. This group had real conversations about that," said Alex.
This storytelling project was made possible through funding from the WNY Foundation
Euneika Rogers-Sipp for SCALE consulting team, April 2022
In this blog, the first of a series, I will highlight community-based organizations in Western New York that are creating and expanding innovative models of care - beginning new efforts and nurturing long-standing food sovereignty initiatives that are committed to improve health equity and support transformative system-level change.
The Food Future WNY Initiative is learning that forming the right partnerships with these community-based actors will address many of the underlying issues impacting our ability to effectively respond to local community needs for healthy food. Partnerships working at the intersection of farm enterprise, public health policy and racial justice aim to build a solid foundation for the future of food systems, thereby providing opportunities for mutual healing.
The Native Farm Bill Coalition meets at Gakwi:yo:h Farms in Cattaraugus County, April 12, 2022. Territories represented: Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Seneca, Allegany, Seneca Cattaraugus, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, Tuscarora, Ganondagan, Cayuga, Onondaga, Akewesasne Mohawk, Kahnawake Mohawk, Eastern Band of Cherokee North Carolina. Photo by Mike Snyder.
An affirming, growing life force is generated by partnering with the Seneca people. Among the growing field of food system actors, who center Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI), in this potential accord is held in the greatest respect. As recently as 20 years ago, the Seneca experienced systematic destruction of their agricultural traditions, from how they butchered their animals to how they sowed, harvested, and distributed their crops. According to Mike Snyder, Director of the Seneca Nation Agriculture Department and Manager of Gakwi:yo:h Farms (good food in Seneca), a Seneca Nation farming enterprise, did not exist because in an ecosystem of traditional foods and medicinal practices farming was irrelevant in that iteration of Western New York’s food system culture.
Gakwi:yo:h Farms addresses food security and food sovereignty through community engagement and wellness by implementing a “Haudenosaunee” (pronounced Ho· de·no·sau·nee·ga) approach to agricultural practices. Commonly referred to as Iroquois of Six Nations, the goal is to produce healthy food, use quality food processing procedures and make these foods available to Seneca community members, from field to table. The foundation of the mission rests on the ability to positively impact the Seneca people, contribute to a conscious shift toward healthier eating habits, and change the way food is brought into homes.
As an agriculture initiative, Gakwi:yo:h Farms reconnects the philosophy of their Seneca ancestors and commits to promote the relationship between the people, their lands, and the foods they eat. Just as the Seneca people have always understood and respected the value of their traditional foods, they acknowledge the value placed on healthy food, especially white corn which is an inherent part of the Seneca culture. Gakwi:yo:h Farms is thriving, developed in the ways of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is indigenous to the exact location it stands today.
Three phases of Community Food Sovereignty: Plans and Action in Place
The Access, Equity, and Food Sovereignty (AES) Work Group explores and embraces the transformative potential, opportunities, and wide-ranging benefits that food sovereignty and other justice-based frameworks offer. Frameworks that can benefit people living and working in rural and urban areas. We are inspired by the movement of Senecas to re-establish and control their traditional food systems while diversifying into markets, production modes, cultures, and environments. Although the Seneca are not completely food sovereign today, they are well on their way to a culturally-specific system rooted in their origins. Their self-sufficiency model facilitates direct links between indigenous farming practices and a community's social and economic development.
To learn more, get involved or find contact information please visit the WNY Regional Food System Initiative website.
Anthony Flaccavento, SCALE Consulting Team - March 16, 2022
We’ve just come through another cold spell here in southwest Virginia – not as bad as Buffalo, mind you! – so I’ve removed a few large pieces of plastic we’d been using to warm the soil for an early planting of broccoli. These sheets are ‘repurposed’: taken off of high tunnels that needed new plastic after several years. We farmers are a frugal bunch, reusing materials, fixing equipment, turning waste into compost or energy, repurposing just about everything we can. Most farmers do this far better than me.
But frugality alone can’t compensate for the steep rise in costs western New York farmers are facing for their most basic inputs: seeds, feed, fertilizers, equipment and fuel and transport. Fertilizer costs, which had already increased substantially in 2021, are projected to jump as much as 80% more in 2022, according to a study by Texas A & M University. And while prices for some farm commodities have also increased a bit, the reality is that most farmers find themselves “caught between monopolized sellers and buyers”, according to journalist Claire Kelloway. “They must pay ever higher prices to the giants who dominate the market for the supplies they need. At the same time, they must accept ever lower prices from the giant agribusinesses that buy the stuff they sell, like crops and livestock.” For western New York farmers who completed our survey, rising input costs was among their top concerns, along with increasing access to better paying markets.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? Launched a little more than a year ago, the Western New York Food System Initiative is working to build a more equitable and resilient food system in the nine-county region, one where farmers can make a decent living, workers earn a livable wage and consumers – all of us – have access to healthy, affordable food produced nearby. Scores of people, from Rochester to Cattaraugus County, have come together to tackle this challenge, sharing innovative solutions that are emerging on farms and in local communities.
Many of these emerging solutions share a common characteristic: they create more direct connections between farmers and consumers. Ranging from mobile markets in Jamestown, Buffalo and Rochester to electronic marketplaces like Produce Peddlers and Farm Drop in Linwood, to food hubs and distributors like Headwater in Rochester, Eden Valley Growers in Erie County, or Brigiotta’s in Jamestown, efforts to build more locally-based supply chains are bearing fruit. Other enterprises, like Alliance Farm Butchery, are pooling the resources of multiple farmers to build meat processing infrastructure that is responsive to local farmers rather than distant agribusiness giants. And the Seneca Nation’s Gakwi:yo:h Farms and Blegacy Farm in Franklinville are both ‘incubating’ new farmers while rekindling the production of both healthy and culturally-rooted foods.
Fewer than one in a hundred Americans farm or are likely to take up farming. So, what can the other ninety nine of us do to support a better food system in Western New York? First, as my colleague, Michael Shuman pointed out in his February post, we can begin to shift some of our
savings and investment dollars to support these innovative local businesses. Two years ago, my wife and I invested in a local micro-dairy, Goshen Farmstead, that produces outstanding milk and yogurt, and which is paying its local investors an average return of about 5%. Though our investment was small, the gratification we’ve gotten from putting our money into a healthier food system is enormous. And the Jersey milk is fantastic!
And second, for many of us, we can invest in a stronger food system by choosing how and where we buy our groceries. Our ‘food dollars’ are a form of everyday investment. We can use them to help Walmart and Amazon increase their reach and power, or we can help build up the farms, markets and food businesses that are stewarding our land, strengthening local economies and rebuilding communities. Creating many more options for people to buy healthy local foods, including overcoming systemic challenges to food access, is central to the WNY food system initiative. Each of us can help make that happen, with every bite we take. And in the process, we will strengthen local farms, reduce food transport cost, and ensure that farmers get a larger share of the food dollars we spend.