In rural WNY, helping a community leverage its greatest asset

UB students Erin Sweeney and Munsung Koh (center) meet with members of the steering committee.

UB students Erin Sweeney and Munsung Koh (center) meet with members of the steering committee.

by David J. Hill

Published November 13, 2018 This content is archived.

“This document provides a roadmap for strengthening our local government policies, food system, economic development and health.”
Ann Abdella, executive director Chautauqua County Health Network, Professor, Urban and Regional Planning

 A new report developed by UB urban planning students offers strategies for how Chautauqua County in New York can harness the food system for economic development and health.

The report, titled “Cultivating Prosperity in Chautauqua County: Leveraging the Food System as a Catalyst for Economic Development,” resulted from a partnership between the community and UB researchers. It was prepared by graduate students from the Department of Urban and Regional Planning in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, under the guidance of Samina Raja, a professor in the department.

Students examined the potential of the local food system to enhance food security, accessibility, and countywide economic development in Chautauqua, a mostly rural, agricultural county in the southwestern corner of New York State. The report was prepared on behalf of the Chautauqua County government and a community advisory committee.

“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Chautauqua County. Although agriculture faces many challenges, it also has tremendous potential,” said Chautauqua County Executive George Borrello. “Having a strategy to strengthen our food system will benefit everyone in our county and the region.”

The report includes chapters on Chautauqua County’s geography and demographic makeup, as well as food systems sectors such as distribution, processing and retail. It provides information on the role each sector plays in the county’s economy and how the food system can improve the economic and social well-being of the county and Western New York as a whole.

The report also examines the challenges and opportunities in the food system in Chautauqua County, where as many as 13 percent of residents are food insecure.

Many residents lack vehicular transportation, and the distance to stores combined with low-density retail development means many people struggle to simply get to a food retail location. Once at the store, there is a lack of healthy food available for sale, and the high price of healthy food is a barrier for residents.

Although Chautauqua County has natural resources suited for agriculture, as well as the second-highest farms per capita across the state, farmers face a variety of challenges. There is often a shortage of agricultural labor, and many farmers are unable to attain new technologies due to high costs and low sales revenues.

Similar to county residents, farmers also lack the transportation infrastructure needed to get their products to markets or distributors. Meanwhile, the average age of farmers is rising, and many are unable to enter the agricultural field due to a variety of barriers, including a lack of start-up capital.

Jason Toczydlowski, CHQ Local Food.

Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Chautauqua County, a mostly rural county in the southwestern corner of New York State. The Food Lab's report will support the county's efforts to better leverage its assets toward a more equitable, sustainable food system. Image source: Jason Toczydlowski, CHQ Local Food

The students’ report outlines six key recommendations for the county:

  • creating a food system coordinator position within county government;
  • incentivizing the formation of a food system transportation network;
  • facilitating partnerships and securing funding to establish food system-based educational programs in secondary and technical schools, and at Jamestown Community College and SUNY Fredonia;
  • conducting food security assessments to determine additional barriers residents face in geographic access to healthy, affordable foods in rural and urban areas;
  • establishing a micro-lending and discounted land, infrastructure and equipment leasing program to assist new food-system-related businesses with startup or scaling-up costs;
  • and forming an advisory council to strengthen and sustain the food system in partnership with public, private and civic sectors through new ways of governance and policy.

Community partners are working with county government to implement the ideas in the report.

“This document provides a roadmap for strengthening our local government policies, food system, economic development and health,” said Ann Abdella, executive director of the Chautauqua County Health Network (CCHN). “We applaud our local officials for recognizing that improving connections between our farms and consumers can be a win-win for everyone.”

The report was prepared as part of a graduate practicum completed by UB urban and regional planning students and taught by Raja, principal investigator of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning.

The practicum was supported by the Growing Food Connections initiative, which Raja directs. GFC is a national research initiative funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which uses local government policy and planning to strengthen agricultural viability and reduce food insecurity.