Growing a Stronger Community

Published November 25, 2019

By: Mike Gluck

“It’s important that as academics we get involved with the city we live in and contribute to the work of organizations and social movements.”
Gabriela Cordoba Vivas, Media Studies PhD student

Imagine you’re a refugee from Nepal, Congo or Pakistan. You leave behind family, friends and a generations-long tradition of growing and raising your food. 

You’ve spent 10 years—maybe 20—in a refugee camp before arriving in Buffalo. You find an apartment on the West Side and get a job. Now you just have to feed your family.

You walk a mile to the supermarket (passing five liquor stores and a dozen convenience stores along the way) and wander through aisles filled with unfamiliar foods.

This is life in Buffalo as a refugee and it’s why three UB graduate students spent last summer creating a plan to give Buffalo’s newest residents their own vegetable gardens.

Life in a food desert

Nationwide, low-income neighborhoods have half as many supermarkets as wealthy ones. Likewise, in Buffalo, access to healthy food often depends on where you live. From the East Side to the West Side, Black Rock and Riverside, the city is filled with “food deserts,” overpriced corner stores that offer few healthy options. Lack of reliable transportation limits how far most low-income people can travel to find healthy, nutritious food for their families.

Of course, a bad diet is more than an inconvenience. Eating poorly can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. More intimately, food deserts affect a person’s food sovereignty, including their ability to determine their own food system and find food that is culturally appropriate. This is especially relevant for refugees.

Searching for a sustainable solution

For years, Journey’s End Refugee Services, the largest refugee service provider in Buffalo, has addressed these issues through their Brewster Street Farm on Buffalo’s East Side. At the Brewster Street Farm, refugees, immigrants and other community members can grow their own crops and learn more about healthy eating habits.

Journey’s End recently conducted a survey among Buffalo’s 16,000 refugees and found that 72% desired to grow their own food.

“Many of the refugees were farmers, or at least had a garden in their home countries,” says Lauren Dawes, farm program manager for Journey’s End. “They could control what they put in their bodies. It was affordable and nutritious.”

Journey’s End wanted to find more ways for the farm to generate revenue, while continuing to provide benefits for refugees and others throughout Buffalo. The organization applied and was accepted to the UB Social Impact Fellows program, a unique initiative co-founded by the schools of Social Work and Management. Through the program, UB places blended teams of graduate students in internships with local mission-driven organizations. The students spent the summer of 2019 learning about Journey’s End Refugee Services and the social issues it is addressing. They then put their unique experiences, knowledge and strengths together to find a solution to the challenge.

A new solution and a new funding source

At Journey’s End, the Social Impact Fellows created a new program to support the farm, serve Buffalo’s refugees and increase community involvement called “Get a Garden, Give a Garden.”

Through this “one-for-one” initiative, anyone may buy a raised garden bed from Journey’s End; when they do, the organization will install it in their yard, then build and donate an identical garden bed to a refugee family or community member in need.

“Giving low-income families the ability to grow their own produce will help to promote food autonomy and healthy eating in Buffalo as a whole,” says Eli Schmidt, a master of social work (MSW) student at UB, and one of the Social Impact Fellows. The raised garden beds are necessary, says Schmidt, given potentially high levels of lead in the soil in poorer areas of the city.

Schmidt, who is also earning a law (JD) degree, interned at Journey’s End alongside Tim Madden, a student in the dual MBA/bachelor’s of industrial engineering program, and Gabriela Cordoba Vivas, a Media Studies PhD student.

As part of their work, the students surveyed refugees to measure the demand for home gardens, developed a marketing strategy, determined costs, set pricing, and recommended that each garden include information about growing seasons and crop planning.

“Obviously this can’t fix food deserts,” says Schmidt. “But it’s providing low-income people the ability to grow their own food and have access to healthy food.”

“It’s really important to give people autonomy over their lives in every way possible,” adds Schmidt. “Food autonomy is one of those ways.”

The program is expected to begin in spring 2020, but is already having an impact. The Get a Garden, Give a Garden program helped Journey’s End win a grant that is providing much-needed funds for the farm and related projects.

A unique initiative

The Social Impact Fellows program is a partnership between the UB School of Social Work and School of Management, and operates in collaboration with UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars, a campus-based entrepreneurship center. In 2019, the program also invited College of Arts and Sciences graduate students to apply.

Through the program, master’s students in social work bring a trauma-informed and human rights perspective to each Social Impact Fellows team. MBA students employ their business and leadership skills, while students from the College of Arts and Sciences offer research-based support.

During the 10-week summer program, the students spend 8 weeks on-site with the organization, and the rest of the time in coursework or team meetings learning how to identify and define social challenges, generate sustainable solutions, and practice entrepreneurial principles.

“Working with a social worker and a media student from Colombia exposed me to unique opportunities. We learned how to communicate with each other and work with each other, all toward a common goal.” - Tim Madden, MBA/BS

A collaborative approach

While all of the students are passionate about social change, they each brought their individual skills to serve the community.

For Cordoba Vivas, the Social Impact fellowship was a chance to apply her media expertise—she created photographs and a video for Journey’s End—and her global insights— she worked on social programs in Poland, Colombia and Spain. “The world is more than just the U.S.,” Vivas says. Vivas also appreciated seeing things from the perspectives of her colleagues from different disciplines. “I think it’s important to foster these kinds of spaces where we can learn from each other,” she says.

“The collaborative component was one of my favorite parts about it,” says Tim Madden. “Working with a social worker and a media student from Colombia exposed me to unique opportunities. We learned how to communicate with each other and work with each other, all toward a common goal.”

As the social work student on the team, Schmidt was able to share lessons from UB’s social work program, including the importance of elevating the voice of the community and giving your clients autonomy.

Schmidt also helped the team apply systems theory—the understanding that everything happens within a system—to gauge the true impact of their work.

“Our farm exists within the system of the East Side of Buffalo,” says Schmidt. “So the things that happen on the farm have the ability to impact the East Side and greater Buffalo as a whole.”

“It was amazing to have all the different backgrounds and perspectives,” says Lauren Dawes, farm program manager at Journey’s End, who worked closely with the UB Social Impact Fellows. “Gabriela, who is from Colombia, was able to see things that wouldn’t make sense, like wording or directions, since English is her second language. Eli is amazing at seeing how someone may not feel included and making it better. Tim is very business-minded and structured. He could look at a problem and think of 10 ways we could fix it.”

Putting others first

Reflecting on their work, the students focused on the impact they hoped it would have.

“I’m not necessarily interested in making ton of money,” says Madden. “For my own satisfaction, there’s nothing better than making a difference in someone else’s day.”

For refugees and other low-income residents, a home garden can make an extraordinary difference in their everyday lives. A garden provides food security and autonomy. It gives people hope. And for refugees, it offers—quite literally—a treasured taste of home.

“At Journey’s End, our slogan is, ‘Where home begins again,’ ” says Dawes. “Refugees are essentially ripped out of their comfort zones out of necessity and fear, and are searching for some sort of normalcy.”

Thanks to the Social Impact Fellows, local refugees may soon find what they’re looking for right in their own backyards.