Blog: Kami Pothukuchi

Kami Pothukuchi is associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State University and the founding director of SEED Wayne, a campus-community collaboration to build sustainable food systems in Detroit.  

Her research examines the links between food and community and economic development and the roles public and nonprofit agencies might play to foster these links.  Her research topics include retail grocery in low-income neighborhoods; urban agriculture as a tool for neighborhood improvement; community food assessments; local food policy; and community and regional planning to build more sustainable food systems.  

Kami co-authored the Community and Regional Food Planning Policy Guide, which was adopted by the American Planning Association in 2007.  A co-authored paper on how linkages between transportation and agri-food systems affect community health was recently released as part of a report by Policy Link and Prevention Institute to promote health in transportation legislation debates.  

SEED Wayne (Sustainable Food Systems Education and Engagement in Detroit and Wayne State University) is a campus-community partnership dedicated to building more sustainable food systems on the campus of Wayne State University and in Detroit neighborhoods.  SEED Wayne seeks to integrate sustainable food system themes into core university functions of education, research, engagement, and operations, with diverse activities on campus and on Detroit's Eastside.

Pothukuchi also serves on the Detroit Food Policy Council and the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative.  She has served two terms on the governing board of the Community Food Security Coalition, a national organization that conducts policy advocacy, training and technical assistance, and outreach on a variety of community food issues.  She also works as a volunteer and consultant with other organizations engaged in community food policy and program development nationally and in the Detroit area. 

Kami Pothukuchi - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Why is a Professor of Urban Planning Running a Farmers Market?

Farmers markets are coming back in a big way, after having declined steadily since the turn of the last century.  In 1994, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the US Department of Agriculture counted 1,755 markets nationwide.  In 2009, there were 5,274—a growth of more than 200 percent in 15 years!  Farmers markets are burgeoning because more and more people want to eat healthfully and also be connected to the sources of their food.  City planners are also discovering the positive contributions farmers markets make to the surrounding neighborhoods and regional economies. 

In 2009, in its first full season, the WSU Farmers Market put about $175,000—a conservative estimate—into the hands of local producers and businesses.  More and more farmers markets are also becoming equipped to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program) benefits after a significant decline when the food stamp program changed from paper vouchers to electronic benefits.

Yet, many communities and organizations starting farmers markets are still quite new to the process of recruiting vendors, organizing market budgets and raising money, getting authorized to accept nutrition program benefits such as SNAP and Project Fresh (as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program in the state is called), and running the market week in and week out!  A small vendor may decide not to show up for a particular market because heavy rains the previous day prevented harvesting.  Tomatoes and peppers may be scarce because of a cool and wet summer.  Farmers market managers have to be sympathetic to hardships growers face, even as they try to satisfy the demands of customers who have yet to learn about the bounties and the sequence of local harvests.

Farmers markets also have to balance the rents they charge their vendors with the need to keep food affordable to low-income populations while also paying for the costs of running the market.  Revenues from stall rents, especially in smaller markets, rarely are enough to pay for the costs of operating the market.  Research shows that nearly half of all markets fail in their first five years, and a good portion of the rest are at risk of failure when the initial management team leaves.  In short, farmers markets rarely, if ever, present their host organizations with a predictably successful business and operational model.  They require passion, effort, a tolerance of uncertainty, and persistence on a weekly and yearly basis.

Besides having scarce resources, farmers market managers across the country also share other difficulties: they are pressured to heed conflicting ideas from different sources—administrators, co-workers, vendors, surrounding businesses, customers, and community leaders.  They tend to be blamed more often than appreciated for the decisions they make when confronted with crises, and they have to conduct transactions with customers and vendors with perpetual patience and good humor.  Successful farmers market managers invariably have a deep and intrinsic appreciation of what they do and why.  

Now, as the Wayne State University Farmers Market manager, my experience admittedly has been something of an exception to that of managers across the country.  I have received significant support and credit from administrators and units across campus, the generous donation of time by students and staff who volunteer at the market, and enthusiastic participation by customers and vendors alike.  Either we've been lucky or Wayne State has a lot of cred in the community, or both!

In general, however, the requirements for successful farmers markets suggest that they are less than amenable to the conventional ways in which universities conduct business.  They need to be approached as social experiments, much in the same way as other research projects that faculty members typically undertake, and need to be carefully tracked for what they take to exist and survive—week in and week out, year in and year out.  

As a faculty member with research interests in urban food systems generally and a particular interest in food retail as a tool for building sustainable food systems, as an employee with tenure at the university, and as someone who can afford to remain unpaid by the market as it gets established, I, more than most people, am in a good position to run the market.  Planning is a field that emphasizes practice; conducting research on farmers markets by actually running one is an approach that many planning researchers would appreciate.  Most importantly for me, the experience brings together in a seamless way, my roles in teaching, research, and community engagement in ways that also link to a core university operation—feeding campus community members.

Post 2: Why Should Universities Host Farmers Markets? The Wayne State Example

Besides education and research, universities have other social and civic missions.  These missions are articulated in different ways and take different forms.  Whatever their forms, the missions outline an institutional commitment and a sense of responsibility to the different communities they serve—the local community and the broader region in which the university is located, to disadvantaged groups in society, to alumni and their families, and to future generations.  

Wayne State University has an explicit urban mission.  This mission recognizes the economic stresses that the city and the state experience and highlights the importance of enhancing the economy, education, and transportation directly as well as indirectly, by cultivating citizenship and civic-mindedness among students.  This suggests that the university takes seriously its role in contributing to the improvement of the quality of urban communities (including its own neighborhood) in all its activities—research, teaching, and community engagement.  

Not explicitly stated, but implicit in the urban mission, is the role of the university as a civic institution, as a large employer, and as a buyer of resources and services.  I would argue that universities need to take a look at their own operations especially as they relate to their facilities, business operations, and the food they serve on campus, and how these connect to the quality of the region.  

The university could start by looking at its immediate neighborhood and the paucity of retail outlets at which affordable fresh and healthy choices may be available.  If the city is a food desert, perhaps the university, as part of its urban mission, could conceive of itself as a food oasis?!  Likewise, the university may look at its own purchasing decisions related to fresh food, which Michigan is eminently capable of producing (in fact, Michigan is second only to California in its agricultural diversity, and unlike Michigan, California relies on borrowed water!).  In these times of crisis, and even as it despairs of fewer dollars flowing from the state to its own coffers, perhaps Wayne State, as should other state universities, consider how they could direct their food spending back to the state's producers and thereby help create related multipliers and economic vitality.

The amount of money the university spends on food is not trivial.  AVI Foodsystems, Wayne State's food service contractor, works with a budget of between $1.3 to nearly $2 million for the meals it provides on campus.  Add to this the dollars spent in food franchises and other businesses that sell prepared foods on campus.  If a majority of those food dollars are spent on Michigan sources, would that not be a great contribution to the state's economy from the University?  Incidentally, these dollars are yours—you, who study at WSU, who send your child to WSU, and who work at WSU!  Why not insist that most of it be spent in Michigan farms and processing facilities that are independently owned?

How, you may ask, is all this discussion answering the question about universities and farmers markets?

Well, for one, if a university cannot guarantee that all meals served on campus are healthy and balanced, and if it continues to offer junk food through its business relationships, then, the least it could do to rectify the imbalance is by offering a farmers market from which fresh fruits and vegetables can be eaten as snacks or prepared at home.  Research shows that meals prepared at home tend to be healthier than ready-to-eat meals from grocery stores and those eaten at food outlets.  

Second, a farmers market on campus would tap into the dollars that staff, faculty, and students ordinarily spend on fresh food in grocery stores.  Because all the fresh foods sold at the market (and many of the ingredients in prepared foods) are sourced from the surrounding region—the vast majority from Michigan—all that money spent at the market would go to local growers and businesses, creating varied multiplier effects in their communities.  A campus market thereby leverages the market constituted by its day-time population to benefit the surrounding community in increasing access to fresh and healthy food to residents in nearby neighborhoods.  And if the market accepts food stamps—as the Wayne State farmers market does—then the benefit is even greater because our tax dollars are not only being spent on good, healthy food, they also benefit Michigan farmers. (The federal Food Stamp Program is now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.)

Third, the university offers its staff and faculty a range of employment benefits, including matching dollars for health insurance premiums, and related services.  The university hosts a variety of health events such as flu shots and diabetes screening, and offers staff incentives to participate in physical fitness activities.  A weekly market would encourage employees and administrators to buy more fresh foods and prepare foods at home rather than buy ready-to-eat foods on the way home.  Students may snack on an apple or a pear and a cider, instead of a bag of chips and a soda.  Why not see a farmers market as a preventive health service?  Why not act to prevent diabetes rather than just provide a free-screening or subsidize its cure?

In fact, why not work with the health care providers to encourage more staff and faculty members to purchase their fresh foods from local farmers markets (including the WSU market)? This is in line with the approach taken by hospitals participating in the 'Health Care without Harm' movement, which sees health care in a broader context than just as a set of medical services.  This movement recognizes the interconnections between the health of individuals and the health of local communities and regions.  Its food message is: eat healthfully, buy food from local producers, contribute to your region's agricultural vitality as much as your own health!  In planning, we call these win-win solutions.

Not yet convinced that the university should host a farmers market?  Well, come down to Wayne State's market during the lunch hour this summer, and taste and feel the market experience.  The market starts June 9 and is offered every Wednesday for the following 21 weeks, from 11 AM to 4 PM. It's on Cass Avenue near Putnam St., in front of Prentis Hall, with free 15-minute parking provided in front of the market. 

Wayne State students and employees, employees of the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Medical Center, and residents of nearby neighborhoods come out in droves to sample the market's offerings.  They linger to say hello to friends they haven't seen in a while, and carry over intense discussions from labs and classrooms (yes, I have seen them!).  Co-workers go out shopping together and share recipes, thereby encouraging bonding and cooperation in the workplace.  The market is full of buzz—it's a festive and social gathering place.  Sure, the fruits and vegetables are fresh and affordable, and everyone who comes to the market leaves with bulging bags and sagging arms, but the market is also a fun place to be and see and be seen!

In short, farmers markets help integrate the university's functions in knowledge production and sharing with its business operations and also with its mission in civic and community engagement.  They also begin to sketch a picture of the university as an economic citizen of the region, which could be filled out in a variety of creative ways.  Every university should host a farmers market!  

Next: Why is a professor of urban planning running a farmers market?

Post 1: The Urban Planning - Food Systems Tie-In

Last week, as I was updating my department chairperson about SEED Wayne, a program I direct on campus, he wrinkled his brow, and asked, "what is a professor doing running a farmers market?"  This was the third time he'd posed this question in about six months.  

Now, he counts himself as a supporter of SEED Wayne and shows off its accomplishments to campus administrators and community partners alike, so I ascribe his query to genuine puzzlement and perhaps some unease with things and people out of their place, with a sense of disorder.  So, let me try to answer his question: Why, indeed, would a professor run a farmers market?

This week I will answer that question, which can be broken down into the following components:

Why should we plan for food?
Why is Wayne State University hosting a farmers market?
Why is a professor of urban planning running a farmers market?

The first should no longer be a question, not with someone leading a planning department.  I've heard this question so many times when I first started working on food system issues as an urban planner.  What is an urban planner doing talking about food?  Food is a rural issue, an agricultural issue.  The food system doesn't need government intervention; the market works quite well, thank you.  Why fix what ain't broke?  Housing, the economy, urban land, transportation are the kinds of things that need planning; why should we plan for food?  Colleague Jerry Kaufman, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, with whom I worked, and I encountered this question from professional planners for several years as we struggled to detail the many ways the food system mattered to communities and therefore needed to be on planners' agendas.  

Today these questions have died down, largely as a result of developments in the planning profession made possible by our work.  Several years after our initial explorations, Jerry Kaufman, Deanna Glosser, and I led a process that culminated in the American Planning Association adopting a community and regional food planning policy guide in 2007.  The policy guide maps for local planners and policy advocates the many interconnections between the food system and communities and regions.  It supports community goals to strengthen regional economies, advance public health, sustain ecological systems, promote social equity, and celebrate local food heritages.  

However, and even as they patted me on the back for these accomplishments, senior colleagues in the department repeatedly advised me to focus on topics considered more central to traditional planning, more familiar topics such as housing, economic development, urban design, and community development.  Now, given the achievements of SEED Wayne to date (to be explained in tomorrow's post) I hope that the question "What's a planning professor doing running a program on food?" is as unnecessary as "What's a planning professor doing running a program on housing or a program on economic development?" which former colleagues have done.  Which gets us to the next question:  

Why is Wayne State University hosting a farmers market?  

To my knowledge, the number of universities that offer farmers markets can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Why is this so?  Why are farmers markets so rare on university campuses?

To answer these questions, let's look at the kinds of businesses that universities typically host and also the broader mission of universities.  What services do they provide besides the most immediate ones related to their core functions of education and research?  What logic underlies these offerings?  Is a farmers market so alien to this logic?

Most universities have cafeterias and dining halls that are run by in-house dining services or food service contractors.  Almost all universities also lease space within their campuses to many kinds of retail businesses—prepared food, office supplies, electronic supplies and entertainment, books and magazines, even apparel and jewelry.  Clearly most of these categories meet basic needs or are conveniences to campus members—students who live on campus and others.  Some are purely recreational, but that's alright, we all could use some distractions.  Whether these businesses are meeting basic or discretionary needs, universities earn revenues from leases upon which they come to depend.  

Can a farmers market satisfy a university's needs for revenues?  Right now, the cost-revenue calculus in operating a farmers market in most locations (especially if one wants to buy produce at a reasonable price) suggests that the answer is no.  From a purely business perspective, then, it appears that farmers markets indeed may not be attractive to universities.  This may explain why more universities don't offer farmers markets as routinely as they may a corporate chain book store, coffee shop, or a fast food outlet.  

However, universities are not businesses; as important as revenues are to anyone, universities especially have other bottom lines to consider.  

Universities are first and foremost in the business of cultivating minds, in preparing students to better meet the needs of society and workplaces, and to transform these arenas for the betterment of all.  All too often, however, universities ignore the mind's connection to the body.  Foods served on campus are very similar to those served outside campus: fried foods and foods containing more fats, sugars, and salts than are recommended in diets.  Foods that are cheap and fast.  In short, the very kind of foods that are causing the rapid increase in the numbers of overweight and obese individuals in our society.  And foods that are sourced from a food and agriculture system that acts quite literally like there is no tomorrow, in its profligate use of fossil fuel resources, in its depletion of the quality of soil, water, and habitats, and its contribution to global climate chaos.  

In fact, my own university, Wayne State, has several buildings (State Hall, the Student Center, and Towers Residence Hall) in which entire walls in prominent locations are covered with stacks upon stacks of candy dispensers.  And what's more, these "candy walls" are emblazoned—proudly, it seems—with a shining Wayne State University logo.  The wall seems to say, "We, the university, endorse your consumption of candy!  Go forth and eat candy!"  I'm not sure about how this seems to you, but to me these walls present an image of a university pushing junk food, not just offering it!  I'm also certain that Wayne State is not alone in hosting these walls of shame.  

Unlike fast food corporations, however, universities cannot responsibly point the finger at the individuals consuming these diets.  It is thanks in large part to many university researchers that we're learning every day about the rich interconnections between the food system and the health of people, communities, and the environment.  And the fact that it is no longer right or fair—if it ever was—to blame individuals entirely for what they eat.  There's too much bad food pushed at us, including with seductive advertising, and very little good food that's affordable.  Yet, when universities make food available, through their cafeterias, food businesses that lease space, and through contracts with food corporations, they act in seeming ignorance of these interconnections.  The business wing of the university seems to be divorced from the knowledge wing.

Tomorrow: Why should universities host farmers' markets? The Wayne State example