Humphrey School News

University of Minnesota Students Aim to Solve Twin Cities’ ‘Food Deserts’

April 18, 2016
Farmers market

Imagine the taste of a sweet, juicy peach on a warm summer’s day. Now, imagine you had to ride a bus or walk a mile or more to buy that peach, or some fresh tomatoes or a loaf of whole wheat bread.

That’s the situation faced every day by thousands of Minnesotans who live in “food deserts,” described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as low-income urban areas where a significant number of residents live more than one mile from a large grocery store. The agency classifies dozens of neighborhoods in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and some Twin Cities suburbs as food deserts.

Food deserts are also prevalent in rural areas of Minnesota, where residents live more than 10 miles away from a full-service grocery store. 

Because of the logistical challenges of getting to a large grocery store, residents in food deserts often shop at nearby convenience stores that usually don’t sell healthier foods such as fresh produce, whole grains, or lean meat. 

A group of students at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs is spending the spring semester figuring out how to address food deserts, among other important food access challenges in the Twin Cities.

Their class is led by Fernando Burga, an assistant professor in the School’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) degree program. He recently joined the School’s faculty to focus on planning advocacy and equity, including the intersection of food access issues and planning.

Burga said he wants his students in the “Site Planning for Food Justice” class to use their knowledge of planning and public policy to help local organizations that serve residents who don’t have easy access to healthy foods.

Burga notes it is just within the past decade that issues surrounding food access have gained public attention, adding that “work on planning and food is a new area. People are still figuring out what that means.”

His 12 master’s degree students—from planning, public policy, and environmental resource management concentrations—are attempting to figure it out. They are partnering with several nonprofit organizations that are active in food access issues around the Twin Cities.  

The students' assignment isn’t to provide food to those in need; rather, they are providing policy analysis, quantitative research, and planning scenarios they hope will lead to longer-term comprehensive planning policies that will address food access challenges, including food deserts.  

The students are taking on diverse projects such as designing a year-round fruit garden in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul; developing an urban garden that can also provide services to people at a St. Paul homeless shelter; examining how the “Ejido” communal land ownership model in Mexico might transfer to rural Minnesota; and considering how the Good Food Purchasing policy—which encourages large institutions to purchase locally sourced food—may be implemented in Minneapolis.

Burga said his students are working closely with the partner organizations to understand their specific needs. He calls the community engagement aspect “central to the character” of the class.

Burga added that the focus of each project is very specific—right down to individual neighborhoods, empty parcels of land, and parking lots.

“That’s where planning policy actually hits the ground—land use, ownership, how do we get things planted, how do we manage [these projects] within building and zoning codes, and so on,” said Burga.  

Food deserts are very often found in communities with higher levels of poverty and more residents of color. Burga’s students are studying those issues as well, as they relate to the challenges of developing comprehensive planning policies.

“Poor planning produces racial inequity,” Burga said. “Race and class are issues that planners have difficulty dealing with. The way our cities are built, laid out, designed, and managed is a source of this. But with careful analysis and attentive collaborations, it may also be the origin of community-driven solutions.”

The students will present their finished projects—which will be heavily focused on data visualization, diagrams, and mapping—to the public, including Humphrey faculty, staff and students’ partner organizations, on May 4 from noon to 4 p.m. at the Humphrey Atrium.

It is Burga’s goal that the students’ work influences current comprehensive planning efforts that are underway in the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. For example, the St. Paul-Ramsey County Food and Nutrition Commission is discussing how to have language addressing food access included in the comprehensive plans for the city and county.

Burga holds master’s degrees in architecture and urban design from the University of Miami and a PhD in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley. His research deals with equity issues in urban planning, particularly in relation to immigrant populations.       

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