Student finds her passion for food systems in Pittsburgh

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As a member of the Penn State women's rugby team, Olivia Lindsey knows a thing or two about teamwork. So it should come as no surprise that when she went looking for an internship last year, she was drawn to the idea of joining a 50-member multi-institution research team.

"It was really interesting being a part of a research project where people are so spread out, working all over the Northeast," said Lindsey, a senior majoring in Community, Environment and Development in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "Seeing how the team communicates and collaborates was a unique experience."

The project for which she interned, called "Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast through Regional Food Systems," is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. It engages researchers, educators, entrepreneurs, community leaders and students from a 12-state region in the Northeast.

Lindsey was drawn to it because of her interest in a career working in food systems. During her internship, she helped conduct some of the site-based research for the project, interviewing grocery shoppers about their food-access experiences and conducting detailed store inventories.

"This work went beyond just data entry," said Heather Mikulas, Penn State Extension educator for community based agriculture and Lindsey's internship site supervisor. "By working with the project, Olivia got to see how research and data collection from one site feeds into the goals and outcomes of a much larger study."

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. 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.

Lindsey also conducted research for the Penn State Extension-supported Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, which Mikulas chairs, to gauge the impact of a farmers-market development project affecting nine markets in the city of Pittsburgh.

"We did a rapid market assessment at the markets, which included attendance counts and surveys with customers to ask them things like how much they spent at the market, how they got to the market, how they found out about it and what changes they'd like to see in the market," Lindsey said. She also interviewed the farmers and vendors who participated in the markets.

She and another intern distilled their findings into a report that will be presented to the city of Pittsburgh later this year. Lindsey hopes that the recommendations contained in the report will help strengthen Pittsburgh's farmers markets.

"We heard so many times from people that the farmers market was so important to them, and how much they liked having it in their neighborhood, and the positive things it brought to the neighborhood," she said.

For Lindsey, her exposure to other people engaged in food-systems work was one of the most valuable aspects of her internship. "Doing this internship showed me that pursuing food-systems work is what I want to do."

Lindsey is graduating from Penn State this May, but if things go her way, she won't be at the commencement ceremony. "The rugby national championship game will be on graduation weekend," she said. "If all goes well, I'll be there instead."

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Last Updated April 08, 2014