In Buffalo, ‘Rust Belt Radicals’ Put Food (Policy) Back on the Table

New study by Samina Raja outlines seven factors that led one of America’s poorest cities to embrace farming, urban chickens and more

Chickens at the Massachusetts Avenue Project farm at 389 Massachusetts Ave. in Buffalo. Photo: Massachusetts Avenue Project.

Chickens at the Massachusetts Avenue Project farm at 389 Massachusetts Ave. in Buffalo. Photo: Massachusetts Avenue Project

By Charlotte Hsu


Published October 15, 2014 This content is archived.

Food, food everywhere. But not a bite to eat.

That was the story in Buffalo leading up to the 21st century: Nestled in a region loaded with farms and orchards, the city nevertheless housed many neighborhoods where fresh fruits, meats and vegetables were in short supply.

So how, in just one decade, did Buffalo become a leader in urban agriculture, with some 60 community gardens coloring its postindustrial landscape?

All this, in one of America’s most impoverished cities.

It’s a story that matters for the Rust Belt — and the rest of the country, says Samina Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning and lead author of a new case study of the topic in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

“Food is critical to people’s well-being, and to understand how Buffalo has done this is an important lesson to understand for planners and other cities,” Raja says. “We are not Seattle or Madison, Wis., and what makes this case study interesting is that it shows what is possible in a resource-strapped city.”

The new study focuses on the nonprofit Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), which established the first urban farming project in Buffalo.

Buffalo’s narrative is compelling because activists managed to remove food from the shadows of urban planning, giving it a prominent place in efforts to rewrite land use and zoning laws, Raja says. It’s a big shift in thinking: Just a few years back, the city published a comprehensive plan that mentioned food four times in 134 pages, Raja and her co-authors write.

“What has happened in the U.S. — and, honestly, the world over — is that food has become this invisible sort of thing,” she says. “We have city departments devoted to electricity, sewers, roads, etc., but not food, which is one thing we all need to survive.”

Raja, PhD, is principal investigator of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab in the UB School of Architecture and Planning.

In the case study, she and other colleagues write that Buffalo’s food movement started outside of City Hall, with “Rust Belt radicals” farming vacant land in the early 2000s. From there, the effort blossomed into a full-on campaign to engage policymakers in amending local laws.

Change came quickly once it started: Milestones included a city ordinance approving urban chicken coops in 2010, and city resolutions supporting community gardens around the same time, according to the study. A draft of Buffalo’s new Green Code, which will govern land use and zoning, encourages urban agriculture on vacant land. Apiaries for beekeeping, greenhouses and farm stands are allowed by the code, which is under review.

Seven Ways to Get Food Noticed In Your City:

The new case study provides a blueprint for activism, listing seven ways the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) and partners put the conversation about food back on the table in Buffalo:

  1. Engaging in “ordinary, incremental, persistent practices”
    Changes in local laws followed years of on-the-ground action by MAP, which grew food, sold it to low-income residents, and raised fish on an urban aquaponics farm.

  2. Building a diverse but unified coalition
    MAP’s “Rust Belt radicals” had limited policy reach on their own, so they partnered with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, government officials, farmers and others to get messages out. All had a shared vision for improving Buffalo’s food system.

  3. Balancing incremental and systemic change
    MAP built urban farms (incremental change), while also pushing lawmakers to amend land use laws (systemic change).

  4. Nurturing communitywide capacity
    MAP trained hundreds of youth to produce, distribute and sell food, and worked with partners to send policymakers to food-related workshops. This created a large body of experts with the know-how to move Buffalo’s food policies forward.

  5. Responding nimbly to windows of opportunity
    MAP and its allies jumped at the chance to advise planners writing the city’s new Green Code. Such windows of opportunity may open rarely; activists must take advantage when they do.

  6. Getting support from local government
    Continual engagement with city planners and councilmembers resulted in an awareness of problems surrounding food, which in turn led to proposals for new laws.

  7. Connecting food to the popular issues of the day
    Economic revitalization is a priority for post-industrial cities across the Rust Belt. Recognizing this, MAP lobbied policymakers on the idea that food — and good food policy — could be vehicles for economic development.

A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture supported the study. Raja’s co-authors were Diane Picard, executive director of the Massachusetts Avenue Project, UB postdoctoral researcher Solhyon Baek and former UB master’s student Cristina Delgado.