Posted: January 27, 2017

Although Alyssa Gurkis and Hayly Hoch are both students in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, they didn’t know each other when they embarked on a 10-week food-system internship last summer with Penn State Extension-Allegheny County. Now they’re close friends, roommates, and collaborators on a food-system project of their own.

  ..  Hayly Hoch, left, and Alyssa Gurklis completed a 10-week summer internship with Penn State Extension-Allegheny County in 2015.

.. Hayly Hoch, left, and Alyssa Gurklis completed a 10-week summer internship with Penn State Extension-Allegheny County in 2015.

Gurklis, a community, environment, and development major, came to the internship to expand her understanding of how food and agriculture can bring people together around an issue. Hoch, a plant sciences major, was interested in rounding out her technical agriculture training with a more informed perspective on the health, economic and social aspects of sustainable food systems.

That they came from dissimilar academic backgrounds was fitting, given that they would be working with an interdisciplinary project that engages researchers from 16 different disciplines. The USDA-funded project, "Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast" (EFSNE), is led by Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural and regional economics at Penn State.

Under the guidance of their field supervisor, Penn State Extension Educator and EFSNE team member Heather Manzo, the students worked together in Pittsburgh's Beechview neighborhood on an EFSNE outreach initiative, revamping and reprinting the Beechview centennial cookbook as a way to unite and give voice to members of the ethnically diverse community. They solicited new recipes from community members and updated the cookbook, which was released during Beechview's 110th anniversary celebration that Penn State Extension organized in collaboration with community leaders and the Beechview Historical Society.

The interns also helped market and implement a Penn State Extension workshop series called "Urban Homesteading," designed for do-it-yourselfers interested in sustainable food and living practices. They rounded out their community-based work by participating in meetings of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, which Manzo chairs, where they witnessed how policy is shaped and changed when community members voice needs and concerns to government.

All the while, they remained engaged academically by posting weekly reflections to a private blog, which facilitated interactions between themselves, Manzo and their academic supervisors -- Clare Hinrichs, professor of rural sociology, and Sara Rocker, doctoral candidate in rural sociology -- who also are both members of the EFSNE project.

Now more than a year later, Gurklis and Hoch have the benefit of hindsight to identify what aspects of the internship were most valuable for them. The answer is inextricably linked with their involvement in Penn State's recently launched Student Farm and Sustainable Food Systems Program. Hoch is one of the co-founders and co-directors of the Student Farm Club, and Gurklis is the club's internal development director and the program's communications and outreach intern.

They each played instrumental roles in establishing the farm through high-visibility activities, such as lobbying University leaders for support and engaging stakeholders through public presentations. Hoch feels the internship directly contributed to their success in this effort.

"Having the capacity to communicate what the vision is and what the priorities are and how it relates to someone who maybe never has considered agriculture ... that's a skill set that I really feel came from our time in Pittsburgh," said Hoch. That capacity came through multiple avenues, she said, "from marketing the urban-homesteading series workshops, to sitting in on Pittsburgh Food Policy Council meetings and hearing how those priorities and goals were communicated, to the language used in the EFSNE project."

Similarly, Gurklis valued the "realistic take on what working with communities looks like." She discovered that engagement can be nonlinear, and that getting a feel for a community takes time.

Their story could easily end there, but the students were intent on extracting even more value from the experience. "We realized we learned so much, and we didn't want this experience to be a singular event," said Hoch. "We wondered, 'How can we use what we've learned here and help shape our campus community?'"

Their answer came as an idea hatched in their shared cubicle: a collaborative approach to learning how to cook, which they would take to Penn State's University Park campus. With encouragement from their supervisors and Extension colleagues, their idea evolved into a tangible program that they launched upon their return to campus.

The aptly named "Cooking Collaborative" brings people together to cook and share a meal that uses locally sourced ingredients. Unlike a cooking demonstration, participants don't fall into a student or teacher role and instead learn from each other.

The Cooking Collaborative enjoyed a two-semester run and is currently on hold while the students search for a permanent venue where they can host the events. But Gurklis and Hoch are intent on reviving it before they leave Penn State. They hope it will be carried on by future students who share their passion for bringing people together around food.