Student Stories: CED major explores urban ag at Penn State Philadelphia Center

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Urban agriculture” isn’t a well-known concept, but Sara Touey plans to change that.

Touey, a community, environment, and development major in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, interned at the Penn State Center in Philadelphia. The center offers educational programs to people of all ages and encourages them to get involved with the community. She studied urban farming, a subject that’s relatively new to the agricultural world.

Urban agriculture is rooted in social benefits and community enrichment. Often partnered with nonprofit organizations, urban agricultural operations concentrate their efforts on food access and nutritional programs.

“It’s about solving community problems at the local level, not about imposing solutions as an outsider without all the facts,” said Touey, who hails from Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

Touey participated in the internship as part of Penn State’s Scholarship, Sustainability and Civic Engagement Program, a seven-credit, immersive, engaged scholarship experience that brings together undergraduate students who are interested in community development, civic engagement, and sustainability and pairs them with faculty members and a community host to gain professional experience and apply the skills learned in class in a real-world setting.

Touey was paired with the Penn State Philadelphia Center for her internship, and from there began to develop her project by working with the center’s myriad nonprofits. Over eight weeks, she researched communities and immersed herself in the world of urban agriculture.

“During the internship I went to a farm on the site of Teens 4 Good, a nonprofit associated with the Penn State Center,” said Touey. “They teach youth from lower-income neighborhoods how to grow and harvest their own food. They also teach nutritional programs, how to cook with produce and job-development skills they can take into the real world.”

Smaller farms associated with urban agriculture don’t have the heavy machinery or space one would find on a rural farm, or many workers, Touey explained. “It was humbling — it’s a very personal process,” she said about working at Teens 4 Good. Along with a handful of other volunteers, she worked in a small unit with the head farmer. She was given the opportunity to get her hands dirty, see how the food was grown and gain first-hand experience with the process of working on a smaller farm.

“We got up early in the morning and really got personal with growing foods. It gave me a greater appreciation because before this internship, I was completely removed from the growing process,” she said. “It’s so easy to get food from the grocery store and not really think about where it comes from.”

While Touey learned a lot about urban agriculture and the benefits of integrating with nonprofit organizations, she realized that many people are confused when it comes to the definition of urban agriculture and what it does.

“A lot of these nonprofits actually struggle with funding, because a lot of people don’t understand what urban agriculture is," Touey said. "There’s a disconnect between quantifying the benefits, because people think it’s about food production and giving to the community in that way, but urban agriculture is about social benefits. It’s about how they’re impacting their communities in terms of food access and nutritional quality.”

Touey plans to continue studying urban agriculture. She’s currently working on a brochure to show the diversity of urban agricultural infrastructure in Philadelphia. She wants to emphasize what urban agriculture can do, along with promoting some nonprofit organizations that work with urban agriculture to improve communities.

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Last Updated February 15, 2017