University of Buffalo Professor Encourages Planners to Create Communities That Facilitate Healthy Food Systems and Healthy Eating

    • February 22, 2010

The problem. Samina Raja, PhD, wants planners—professionals who work with elected and appointed officials to create more convenient, equitable, healthy, efficient and attractive communities—to understand how they can help communities provide better access to healthy foods.

Planners already help shape the food system and affect whether people eat well. They just don't know it, says Raja, who earned her BSc in civil engineering from Jamia Millia University and her master's degree in planning from the School of Architecture and Planning, both in India. Her PhD in urban and regional planning is from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

"Planners may be able to play an active role, and meet some of the traditional planning goals, like environmental sustainability and economic development, by helping to make the food environment better," said the associate professor of urban and regional planning and health behavior at the University of Buffalo.

The grantee. As a partner in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF's) Active Living by Design and Healthy Eating by Design projects in Buffalo, Raja had the opportunity to write Transforming Food Environments, Building Healthy Communities. The book is designed to get planners thinking about how they can improve the food environment of the communities they work in.

Buffalo is one of 25 community partnerships in Active Living by Design. Twelve of these partnerships, including Buffalo, also participated in Healthy Eating by Design. During that pilot program, they implemented strategies to provide affordable, healthy and appealing food options to children and families by changing local food and nutrition policies and environments. See Program Results Report on the program for more information.

Facilitating community access to healthy food. Raja wrote Transforming Food Environments, Building Healthy Communities with colleagues Branden Born and Jessica Kozlowski Russell under an RWJF grant to disseminate lessons learned from Healthy Eating by Design to a broader audience.

Published in 2008 by the American Planning Association, the book includes case studies of Buffalo and five other sites. Two of those sites—Louisville, Ky., and Portland, Ore.—also participated in Healthy Eating by Design. The other case studies feature Madison, Wis., Marin County, Calif., and Philadelphia.

The book also includes results from a nationwide survey designed to reveal what planners think about their involvement in access to healthy food and healthy eating, their actual involvement and the barriers to promoting that access. To encourage members to participate in the survey, the American Planning Association posted a link to it on its website, and announced the survey through its electronic newsletter.

"A simple way that planners can affect their food system is by including food as an element in their comprehensive plan," Raja said. "Food has not been an element in these plans, which outline what a community will look like in 10 or 15 years: they typically cover transportation, economic development and housing." For example, is there adequate transportation to a grocery store where people can buy healthy food? And does the plan recognize community gardens as one type of park?

The book concludes by saying that planners have an important role in "facilitating the planning and design of communities where healthy food systems and healthy eating become possible."

Combining healthy eating and active living work. As a co-founder of Healthy Eating Buffalo, Raja helped draft the proposal to RWJF, brought the right partners to the table, served as an advisor to the project and also evaluated it. She then got involved with the Healthy Communities Initiative—Buffalo's Active Living by Design initiative—and became its evaluator.

"It was like a dream come true for me because I do both active living and healthy eating research," she said.

As of September 2009, Raja was working on another book, Planning for Healthy and Just Food Environments in Urban America (under contract with MIT Press). This book, which will also feature case studies, is more critical of planning's role in shaping the food environment.

"It will highlight the struggles more, so planners can emphasize the impact of their work on people's access to food," she said. The intended audience is graduate students who are interested in food systems.

Raja's active living research includes a National Institutes of Health grant to study how well an effort to increase physical activity in youth works among children living in areas with high access and in areas with low access to parks. As a co-investigator, she is working with colleagues at the university's School of Medicine on that three-year grant, which began in 2007. Raja also studied the influence of parks on the physical activity of youth with colleagues at the medical school under an RWJF grant that ended in 2008.

Raja also has a major role in Buffalo's Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities partnership. RWJF's Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities is a national program to implement healthy eating and active living initiatives through policy and environmental change strategies. The program focuses on children who are at highest risk for obesity based on race and ethnicity, income and geographic location.

RWJF perspective. RWJF looked at the growing evidence that individual behavior change efforts are most successful when they take place in a larger community and social context. As a result, the Active Living by Design program examined ways to combine individually oriented behavior change approaches with community-based strategies to create environments that are more conducive to physical activity.

Active Living by Design has harnessed community design and livable community initiatives as a vehicle and force for making communities more activity-friendly. It has created community-led change by working with local and national partners to build a culture of active living and healthy eating.

"The Active Living by Design communities faced the challenges of changing the built environment, re-thinking the design and land use policies that shape the environment, and, in some instances, re-inventing the practices of an entire community. They demonstrate how creativity, determination, vision and a willingness to see into the future can help make change happen," said Jamie Bussel, RWJF program officer.