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First EFSNE intern receives immersive education in food systems research

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Posted: March 22, 2014

Based in Pittsburgh, PA, Penn State Senior Olivia Lindsey spent six months interning with the EFSNE project. From conducting site-based research to organizing community events, her internship activities bolstered her appetite for a career in food systems work.
Olivia Lindsey (center) helped organize community events to help get the word out about the project. Pictured with her are Chelsea Holmes of Women for a Healthy Environment, and Chef Bill Fuller of big Burrito Restaurant Group. Credit: Heather Mikulas

Olivia Lindsey (center) helped organize community events to help get the word out about the project. Pictured with her are Chelsea Holmes of Women for a Healthy Environment, and Chef Bill Fuller of big Burrito Restaurant Group. Credit: Heather Mikulas

In college, group projects can get a bad rap. But to Penn State senior Olivia Lindsey, they were great preparation for her six-month internship with the EFSNE project. "Even for the small group projects I did for my classes, we did a lot of our communicating and collaborating online," she said. "It was cool to see how that works in 'real life'."

Real life, indeed. With 50-some team members spread out over 12 states, EFSNE brings new meaning to the term 'group project.' Online collaboration and group conference calls are the project’s mainstay, and Lindsey still remembers her first team call. During her six months working in the project’s Pittsburgh location, she became adept at collaborating in this way with the far-flung members of the larger team. It was by phone, for example, that she learned the protocol for conducting the project’s site-based research.

But it wasn't long before she was out in the community, putting all that she learned on those calls to work. "Olivia really took the lead coordinating the intercept surveys and the store inventories at our Pittsburgh site," said Heather Mikulas, a Penn State Extension Educator and Lindsey’s internship site supervisor. Conducting this site-based research gave Lindsey the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of how data collection works.

"This work went beyond just data entry," said Mikulas. "By working with the EFSNE project, Olivia got to see how research and data collection from one site feeds into the goals and outcomes of a much larger study. We also spent some time talking about the framework behind the data collection — like why questions are worded the way they are — to give some context to what we were doing."

"In developing our internship program, we wanted to create strong norms of communication and accountability between the intern, the academic program and the internship host to improve the internship experience for all participants."
— Clare Hinrichs

Also lending context to Lindsey’s experiences were the reflective journals that she prepared and submitted each week to her academic supervisor, Clare Hinrichs, a Penn State professor of rural sociology and member of the EFSNE Education Team. Hinrichs responded to Lindsey’s weekly reflections to help draw connections between her on-the-ground experiences and broader issues in the field of community development as it connects to food systems. "In developing our internship program, we wanted to create strong norms of communication and accountability between the intern, the academic program and the internship host to improve the internship experience for all participants," said Hinrichs.

In addition to her work with the EFSNE project, Lindsey’s internship included a good deal of community-based work with the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, which is chaired by Mikulas. Together with another intern, Lindsey conducted several in-depth assessments of Pittsburgh’s city-run farmers markets, which involved surveying customers, interviewing vendors, and compiling a report to be presented to the City of Pittsburgh.

"It was really neat being on the ground and talking to people in the community," said Lindsey. "I was surprised by how willing they were to share their thoughts and experiences. We had more people who wanted to talk than people who didn’t want to talk."

Lindsey also helped organize some community-based events to help get the word out about the project. "She took a holistic systems view of what was happening in the neighborhood food scene and played an integral part in connecting the dots between the community stakeholders," said Mikulas. "She did a really great job. It extended the EFSNE project into some of the other work in the neighborhood."

For Lindsey, her exposure to other people engaged in food-systems work was one of the most valuable aspects of her internship. "I worked very closely with another intern, who was pursuing a graduate degree in food studies at Chatham University. I got to learn all about what that grad school experience was like for her, and I enjoyed learning from my site supervisor, who also has an interesting career background," said Lindsey. "Doing this internship showed me that pursuing food systems work is what I want to do."