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From focus groups to food policy meetings, EFSNE interns get a taste of urban food issues

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Posted: February 5, 2015

Jillian Gordon and Shannon McCullough are two Penn State undergraduate students who were both drawn to a Pittsburgh-based EFSNE internship for the same reason: the chance to work in a city. But Pittsburgh beckoned them in different ways.
Penn State undergraduates Shannon McCullough (left) and Jillian Gordon interned with the EFSNE project during the summer of 2014.

Penn State undergraduates Shannon McCullough (left) and Jillian Gordon interned with the EFSNE project during the summer of 2014.

For Gordon, it was the opportunity to learn how food systems work in an urban setting. For McCullough, it was the chance to see Pittsburgh—the city where she grew up— through a different lens. They each met their goals last summer, when they spent 10 weeks working in the Pennsylvania city through a joint arrangement between the EFSNE project, Penn State Extension, Allegheny County, and the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council (PFPC).

"I wasn’t familiar with what food systems look like in urban areas like Pittsburgh, and what issues they face," said Gordon, a senior majoring in Agricultural and Extension Education, who said the experience helped prepare her for a career goal of teaching agriculture in a more urban area. While assisting with the project’s focus groups in the city’s Beechview neighborhood, Gordon got a very tangible sense of the unique challenges that lower-income urban communities face.

For example, for many of the residents who don’t have their own transportation, getting around is difficult in a community characterized by hilly geography and serviced by limited public transportation, Gordon explained. "They have to take extra amounts of time to plan out a trip—whether carpooling or taking a bus—to get to the grocery store to get those fresh foods," she said. She was particularly struck by one person who reported getting to a grocery store only two times in the past year, relying on fast food or the neighborhood drug store for her sustenance in between.

McCullough was surprised by this, too. "It was really eye-opening, because I’ve lived there my whole life and had never seen this side," said McCullough, a junior majoring in Community and Environment Development and in Spanish.

Observations like these infused meaning and context into the students’ work with the PFPC. "Finding transportation to food sources is one among many food access-related concerns of the PFPC," said McCullough. "So, it was really interesting to be able to hear first-hand comments about how people feel about that. We were able to see more clearly the issue of people not being able to find food or not being able to afford transportation." Gordon felt these perspectives strengthened their understanding of the questions the Council was grappling with. "How can the Council serve communities like Beechview, where they’re dealing with figuring out how to get fresh food and how they want to feed their families?" she explained. 

A weathered sign that reads "Beechview" attached to a brick building.

Their work with the PFPC proved valuable in more pragmatic ways, too, said McCullough. "You learn that things need to be done at a certain time, that you need to be able to work with groups of people," she said of the experience. "Teachers tell you that all the time, but you don't understand it until you get into a situation where there’s so many people bouncing ideas off each other." McCullough added that the contacts she made with all the people on the Council—a coalition of Pittsburgh’s diverse food-related stakeholders—are incredibly valuable to her. "You make contacts that you’ll have for the rest of your life, and they really do care about helping you."

"Helping shepherd interns through real-life application of the community development process is rewarding as students move towards graduation and transition into professionals," said Mikulas. "These field experiences engage students in connecting the dots between academic research and impact in lives and communities."

The arrangement between the project, Penn State, and the PFPC that allowed for this internship experience was a natural collaboration. Heather Mikulas, an EFSNE Team member and Penn State Extension Educator, spearheaded the PFPC to convene Pittsburgh stakeholders around furthering Penn State Extension's work in the city. A grant she received last year enabled the Council to hire staff, including the Council's first full-time director, Dawn Plummer. Plummer and Mikulas provided site-based supervision to the student interns. Penn State Professor of Rural Sociology Clare Hinrichs provided academic supervision, along with Sarah Rocker, a Penn State doctoral candidate in Rural Sociology who helped to coordinate the interns' placement in Pittsburgh and support their learning experience throughout the summer.

This was the first time that two students interned with the EFSNE project simultaneously, which they felt added to the experience. They reported feeling more engaged with the learning, because they would reflect on everything they were doing and seeing together. And since they are each enrolled in different majors, they could offer distinct perspectives to the learning that was taking place.

Much of this reflecting and perspective sharing took place on a private blog that was set up to facilitate interactions between the interns, their site-based supervisors, and their academic supervisors, said Rocker, who assisted with the blog.

"Each week, there would be new readings, videos, or field trip assignments for the students," said Rocker. The point of these assignments was to encourage them to consciously explore their placement community, and write reflections on what they were observing. The reflection questions were designed to tie their field-based learning back to broader issues from their course work and to strengthen their professional learning experience about local and regional food systems development, practice and policy.

"From an organizational standpoint, working with EFSNE interns helps to amplify on-the-ground work at the Pittsburgh study site," said Mikulas. "The project is complementary to ongoing concurrent work that Penn State Extension and other organizations are involved in, and the community values the perspectives and energy that the interns bring."

The EFSNE internship program is an initiative of the project’s Education Team. More information about the team's efforts is available here.