Changing the Legacy of Fast Food

U of M Assistant Professor Fernando Burga takes on the legacy of fast food outlets in North Minneapolis with a UROC Research Agenda grant

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 in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs in the department of Urban and Regional Planning, 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 project studies food from an urban planning perspective.

Entitled “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,” Burga’s UROC Research Agenda Grant Award-winning project asks how and why North Minneapolis became a destination for fast food. It also 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 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 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.”

Food and the Ability to Thrive

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 non-profit 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 2021 UROC Research Agenda Grant Awardees. Learn more about the award and other winners.