Studying how food affects the lives of immigrants in rural Minnesota might seem a long way from practicing architecture and urban planning in Washington, DC. But for Assistant Professor Fernando Burga, those points on his career path aren’t so far apart.
“When I was an architect and urban designer, I always focused on issues that had to do with equity, and that led me to develop an interest in Latino immigrants and immigration,” the Peruvian-born and Miami-raised Burga says.
When he arrived in Minnesota in 2015, he was eager to learn about Latino immigrants living in rural areas of the state, places that were very different from ones he knew.
An appointment as a UMN Extension specialist in the Center for Community Vitality placed Burga, who immigrated to the United States when he was a child, in monthly contact with Latinos in Dodge Center, 90 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. That quickly led him to the topic of food systems.
“It’s difficult to delink food systems and agricultural production from the everyday lives of Latino immigrants who are laboring in some of these sectors,” he says.
One of the things he’s learned is that the Latino immigrants he’s studying travel to other cities to buy food. “They make it a trip, an outing, a once-a-week thing,” he says. “They bring the whole family.”
He’s noted that the malls and parking lots in towns such as Rochester become gathering places. “It‘s where they commiserate, where families see each other, rather than their own communities.”
He’s also found that it’s common for immigrants to develop off-the-grid businesses related to making and selling food within their communities.
Burga is now considering the policy implications of such findings, conducting new studies in the Twin Cities focused on finding safe routes for healthy foods, and sharing his findings with students in his Site Planning for Food Justice class. He believes the work aligns with what he’s done throughout his career—helping people thrive in their communities.
“Planners are always dealing with the complexity of human life,” he explains. “Food is an emergent frontier that touches upon our most basic needs, relationships, and capacities.”