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Saturday, May 25, 2024
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UB organizations step up to fight against food apartheid in Buffalo

The Food Lab and Food Recovery Network aim to support marginalized communities in Buffalo

<p>The Buffalo Food Recovery Network helps provide thousands of meals to local people in need. | Credit: Food Recovery Network.</p>

The Buffalo Food Recovery Network helps provide thousands of meals to local people in need. | Credit: Food Recovery Network.

For decades, marginalized communities in Buffalo have experienced food apartheid, which Karen Washington, a food justice advocate, describes as the “root causes of inequity in our food system based on race, class, and geography.”

In response to this systemic problem, UB groups and organizations developed community-based initiatives to support marginalized communities.

Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at UB, has long been devoted to researching food policy and equity. After graduating with a Ph.D. in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Raja became an assistant professor at UB in 2001. 

A few years later, Raja founded the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab — better known as the Food Lab — with the support of William McDonnell, who was the chief financial officer of the School of Architecture and Planning at the time.

“[Founding the Food Lab] was really organic, not a ‘I woke up one day and I had a vision,’” Raja said. “We did the work first and realized that we have something really interesting going on, and we need to make sure that that work is protected and shared with people.”

Consisting of Ph.D., fellow, master’s, undergraduate and high school students, the Food Lab is a research group committed to analyzing how local policies change food systems in Buffalo and around the world.

As principal investigator of the Food Lab, Raja says food apartheid in Buffalo’s East Side, a predominantly Black neighborhood, is an issue deeply rooted in years of disinvestment in food systems by the government and redlining by major supermarket chains.

“We have seen limited attention to food as a public need,” Raja said. “When [urban planners] design cities and think about livable neighborhoods, they need to go back to the fundamentals. And regrettably, urban planning as a profession has neglected that for years.”

Almost two years after the racist mass shooting at an East Side Tops, where 10 Black people were killed, Raja noted that “not much has changed” in terms of food access since the massacre. Despite reopening two months after the tragedy, Raja viewed the reopening to be insufficient.

Instead, Raja believes that investment in food infrastructure that is run and controlled by residents in the East Side is a structural solution to food apartheid.

To address food apartheid in the East Side, the Food Lab has been working on Growing Food Policy From the Ground Up, a five-year federally funded collaborative project focused on supporting urban growers in Buffalo and Minneapolis.

“In the city of Buffalo, there are a lot of vacant lots,” Raja said. “One way of addressing food apartheid would be to provide access to that land to people on the East Side who want to farm.”

In programs conducted by the Food Lab’s community partners, Urban Fruits and Veggies and Freedom Gardens, growers in the East Side were trained on urban agriculture and provided with raised garden beds to cultivate their own food at their homes.

To support the programs, the Food Lab generated research data for their community partners and advocated for land access. The Food Lab also assisted urban growers by providing them money to buy materials for their gardens and working on their raised garden beds.

With the project in its fifth year, researchers in the Food Lab are now reconvening to brainstorm ways to push for policy change based on their research findings. Raja hopes it will continue to make a difference on a local and global scale.

At the same time, a student-led organization has taken the initiative to support communities affected by food apartheid through conducting food recoveries at UB.

In 2020, Matthew Taboni, a third-year JD/MBA student, experienced food waste firsthand while working at a pastry shop.

“It all started with cake,” Taboni said. “We were making cakes and cutting tops off of cakes and I said, ‘Why are we wasting perfectly good cake? I want to eat this. Someone else probably does too.’”

Taboni was inspired to find a way to repurpose food waste but couldn’t figure out how — until he discovered the Food Recovery Network (FRN).

When Taboni came across the FRN’s website and learned about the organization’s initiative, he set out to start a chapter at UB. Taboni and Serena Tulley, a UB alum, came together to co-found the UB chapter of the FRN in April 2021.

Since then, Taboni has been committed to eliminating food waste by recovering excess food and donating it to local nonprofit organizations, as well as engaging students with food justice movements.

“One of the reasons I started FRN was because I see the power of students and social movements,” Taboni said. “I really wanted to build a coalition of students interested in doing work to [make an] impact in the Western New York community.”

The chapter carries out food recoveries in dining halls and grab-and-go locations across North Campus four days a week. This semester, the FRN has started to expand their initiative to the South Campus.

At the dining halls, student volunteers arrive before closing to weigh and record trays of surplus food that are packed by Campus Dining and Shops (CDS) staff. At grab-and-go locations, such as Au Bon Pain, Capen Café, Sizzles and the Union Marketplace, the recovery process is similar, but the excess food is individually packed items from open fridges.

After the surplus food is stored overnight, CDS donates it the next day to Friends of Night People and The Salvation Army, nonprofit organizations in the East and West Side. 

As of the 2023-24 academic year, the FRN recovered 16,500 pounds of food. In total, the chapter recovered 41,500 pounds of food, which is equivalent to 35,000 meals served to the community.

Being in the network taught FRN director Kayla Saralegui the importance of community.

“When I wasn’t [director of recruitment], I did a lot of rallying,” Saralegui, a sophomore pharmacy early assurance major, said. “I was going to recoveries and gathering my friends from the hallways… That overall experience opened my eyes to the general physiological concept that people want to help people.”

Looking into the future of the FRN, Taboni aims to expand food recoveries to off-campus locations, form new partnerships with other student organizations and get more students involved in the organization.

“We’ve been growing exponentially over the past three years, and I just hope that growth continues,” Taboni said. “[By continuing to grow], we can really begin addressing food waste and food insecurity on a level that needs to be addressed.”

Jason Tsoi is an assistant features editor and can be reached at


Jason Tsoi is an assistant features editor at The Spectrum. He is an English major with a certificate in journalism. During his free time, he can be found listening to music and watching films. 



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