Blog: Kami Pothukuchi

Healthy bodies grow healthy minds. SEED Wayne Director Kami Pothukuchi, a WSU professor of urban planning and manager of one of the few university-run farmers markets in the nation, will discuss the campus market and why educators and urban planners should pay close attention to local, nutritious, and affordable food systems.

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