Fernando Burga grew up in Miami and remembers feeling nostalgia for Peru, his family’s homeland. Like many immigrants, he missed his country’s language and culture. He also missed the food and the feeling of community and coming together that goes along with good meals made from familiar, comforting ingredients.
Now an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Burga continues to focus on food through his research, teaching, and service related to urban planning and food justice.
“I got my degree in architecture and urban design, and have always been concerned with the role of the built environment and racial justice,” he says, explaining that his latest research studies food from an urban planning perspective.
The project, “Is Fast Food Here Because We Want It, Or Do We Want It Because It’s Here? Challenging the Legacy of Fast Food Outlets in North Minneapolis,” recently earned an Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) Research Agenda Grant Award.
Burga’s research asks how and why North Minneapolis became a destination for fast food, and looks at how North Minneapolis’ fast foodscape could be transformed to be more healthy and culturally relevant.
Intended to be a framework for healing, equity, and financial well-being, the UROC Research Agenda and its annual award competition aim to boost collaborative research deemed critical to a thriving North Minneapolis and the Twin Cities urban core.
Knowing that there have been few studies on the relationship between fast food and urban planning in the Twin Cities, Burga says he is grateful for the grant, which will allow him to conduct his research and bring the community together around it.
“This is a participatory-action research project, so we’ll be involving the community,” he says. “UROC’s grant will allow me to fund convenings with yummy, healthy food where people can see exhibits of our findings, as well as maps and drawings. It’s much better and more relatable than just giving someone a report.”
Making a case for healthier food
Burga has long known that healthy eating plays a key role in people’s ability to thrive. For the UROC project, he digs more deeply into the history and policymaking of food systems in Minneapolis. The work includes the participation of North-Minneapolis based Appetite for Change (AFC), which focuses on steering young people toward healthier foods and making fresh produce more accessible.
It also includes R. Roots Garden, a Minnesota nonprofit helping underserved Minneapolis communities by growing fresh produce on four privately owned lots in North Minneapolis. Building on the successful action of both groups, Burga is looking to talk with Northside residents and gather data to empower them to advocate for a healthier and more culturally relevant foodscape.
And there are broader implications, too. “Once we understand more about fast food systems in North Minneapolis, we can expand that tool to other areas and identify patterns so there may be a way to shape current and/or emerging policy around fast food too,” he says.
“Fast food is important because it is a matter of life and death. There are alternatives that could lead us toward healing and a more sustainable landscape. Food is an interesting topic to explore because it really is about how people feel about their community.”
Burga is one of three recipients of the 2021 UROC Research Agenda Grant. Learn more about the award and other winners.
This story was originally published by UROC.