Hands on with Food and Farming
How UW's PEOPLE program is planting the seeds of careers in agricultural sciences
It’s a bright summer afternoon in 2016, and UW–Madison undergraduate Donale Richards accompanies a small group of high schoolers on a visit to the UW Dairy Cattle Center. They meet the cows — with a mix of excitement and trepidation — and peruse the milking equipment to fully appreciate what goes into milk production. The group then finds itself in a sunlit room occupied by a single Holstein. She has a small, circular door in her side — a fistula.
When their tour guide asks if they want to reach inside to feel the contents of the cow’s stomach, most students look unsure. Their noses wrinkle in response to the distinct aroma of the barn and the unusual opportunity in front of them. But one young man steps up to be the first. He reaches inside, a look of awe on his face as he clutches the remnants of the cow’s recent meals. Not to be outdone, Richards follows suit, announcing, “Well, I better give it a try!”
An incoming senior at UW–Madison at the time, Richards was serving as a coordinator for PEOPLE (Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence), which introduces underprivileged teens to the UW–Madison campus, a place they may otherwise know little about. His group of students was taking part in the food and agricultural sciences arm of the program.
Throughout their stay on campus, the students saw many aspects of what the university has to offer. But that summer day in 2016 they learned about a quintessential Wisconsin animal — the dairy cow. They also got the chance to experience some of what researchers do. The contents of cows’ stomachs are studied for a number of purposes, including identifying ideal diets, improving milk production, and understanding bacterial communities in the gut. This is why some cows are implanted with fistulas, which serve as a painless and sealable passageway to the gut. The awed (and disgusted) high school students had a rare chance to see — and feel — that research firsthand.
“This was certainly their first chance to reach inside a cow’s stomach, and for most, even just walking into a dairy barn is a new experience,” Richards says.
PEOPLE has been providing opportunities like these since 1999. A college pipeline for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, PEOPLE provides college preparation services and builds academic, interpersonal, and communication skills while also helping students explore academic and career interests. More than half of the program’s students are admitted to UW–Madison, where they receive a four-year tuition scholarship. The program’s first-year retention rate for college scholars is around 90 percent.
For high school students in the program, the summer provides a chance to live in campus dorms and become fully immersed in the college experience. As soon-to-be, or “rising,” sophomores and juniors, students stay on campus for three weeks. Rising seniors take part in a five-week curriculum that includes an internship or research experience. All of these programs are meant to give students who may otherwise not think about college a chance to explore and consider it for their futures.
“It’s very rigorous for these students,” Richards says. “They are living away from their families, and it can be difficult at first. But it’s a great exposure to the campus, and living in the dorms is their first opportunity to experience the university.”
Richards knows about the experience firsthand — he is a PEOPLE scholar himself. He took part in the program for a decade, starting in middle school and earning his UW–Madison degree in August 2017. As a coordinator of the summer program, he also served as a role model for its high school students — an up-close example of someone who had benefited from the PEOPLE program.
“The biggest thing I think I’ll take from the PEOPLE program is the network,” says Richards. “I saw different kinds of opportunities and met people I would have never met. It has really influenced me to make better decisions about what I want to do with my life. And now I get to share those lessons with new students as they go through the program.”
Rising Juniors: The Three-Week Program
CALS has been involved with the PEOPLE program for several years, providing internship opportunities for high school students entering their senior years. In 2012, CALS partnered with PEOPLE to develop a program that introduces incoming high school juniors to careers in food and agriculture while providing a more complete exploration of the various fields they can pursue.
Their days are spent in a variety of settings. In the mornings, students attend classes to improve math, science, writing, study, and life skills, and they dedicate afternoons to exploring food and agriculture through field trips, lectures, and workshops. For many, these hands-on experiences are the most memorable and are best at helping them understand potential careers.
For one of the 2016 cohort’s first field trips on campus, they visited the F.H. King Student Farm, located near the Eagle Heights apartments on the west end of campus. Under clear blue skies, volunteers from F.H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture showed their young charges around the half-acre plot and introduced them to a variety of plants. The PEOPLE students excitedly pulled carrots and beets from the ground, some expressing amazement at how familiar foods look while growing.
Other field trips included a visit to the aforementioned Dairy Cattle Center and a trip off campus to the Farley Center, a nonprofit organization located just outside of Verona, Wisconsin, that promotes ecological sustainability, social justice, and peace. Each of the field trip locations introduced PEOPLE participants to students, faculty, and professionals working in food and agriculture.
When asked about their favorite parts of the program, it’s clear the students find the hands-on experiences and field trips to be the most enjoyable — and the most effective. Many students named the Dairy Cattle Center and the garden and farm tours among their favorites, and almost all of them appreciated the interactive learning.
For Tom Browne, CALS senior assistant dean, this introduction to food systems is an important part of the food and agriculture program. He wants to connect students to fields they may otherwise think little about.
“A lot of these students come from urban areas, and they completely dissociate themselves from agriculture and what they think CALS is all about,” Browne says. “We try to provide programming that shows them how it affects them and their communities. We want them to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the agriculture world. We try to make those connections for them.”
And this is precisely the outcome for many students. As one wrote bluntly on a program evaluation, “When I first came into the class, I thought I’d hate it, but it was actually really fun, and it’s now something I’m interested in.”
Shaping students’ perspectives about agriculture was part of the master plan for Steve Ventura, a professor of soil science and environmental studies, and one of the main drivers behind the PEOPLE food and agriculture program. He was lead author of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that established the Community and Regional Food Systems project. This project, which brought together several universities, UW– Extension, and dozens of community partners in eight cities to foster innovation in urban food systems, includes PEOPLE as one of its educational arms.
Inspiration for the grant and the PEOPLE program involvement came from Will Allen, the founder and CEO of Growing Power, a national nonprofit organization based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that supports people from diverse backgrounds by helping to provide equal access to healthy, safe, and affordable food. Allen strives for what he calls the “Good Food Revolution,” a plan to grow healthy food and, in turn, healthy communities.
Ventura wanted to instill those same messages in students and use some of the grant money to develop the program in partnership with PEOPLE. “Food, or at least healthy food choices, are limited in some areas,” he says. “The idea of taking control of the food system and having independent choices is important. If nothing else, we want to make people, especially young people, more aware of the opportunities to have more say in their food systems.”
Rising Seniors: The Internship
Once they reach their third year in the food and agriculture program, seniors take part in an internship that provides an even larger window into food systems. In recent years, interns created a healthy, frozen pizza, taking the project all the way from raw ingredients through the preservation and packaging stages. Greg Lawless, an outreach program manager with UW–Extension who oversees the internship, has worked for the past two years with Will Green, founder and executive director of a Dane County youth mentoring program called Mentoring Positives, to create the product.
“I was seeing a gap between growing food and eating the food, so I helped develop an internship around food science,” Lawless says. “Food processing, making nutritious food and getting it out to communities, is a big need, and a great opportunity for companies and researchers. In 2015, we came up with a whey protein bar, and the past two years were devoted to the frozen pizza project.”
Seniors and students from the Mentoring Positives program work closely with Lawless as well as volunteer undergraduates and faculty and staff members from UW–Madison and Madison College to plan and devise their food product. They also visit with chefs and other food development experts.
“We really have a giant team supporting us,” Richards says. “The kids get to meet with important players in the industry, and the industry, in turn, gets to inspire the next generation of professionals.”
In 2016, the interns took what they learned back to the UW Food Application Lab in Babcock Hall to develop each component of their pizza, from the dough and sauce to the cheese and toppings. After a couple of weeks of learning and experimenting with their pizzas, the seniors invited Richards and the juniors to taste their creations. The joint session gave the juniors a chance to see what they could be working on the next year as interns, and it gave the pizzamakers valuable feedback that they used to tweak their product.
At the end of their summer session, rising seniors took part in a pizza launch party at the Salvation Army of Dane County, where Green and his Mentoring Positives students welcomed the PEOPLE program and honored guests, including potential partners and donors. The students presented their pizzas, including production and marketing strategies. As guests taste-tested the pies — ranging from spinach and tomato to green olive and mushroom — the students sat down to talk about their experiences in the program. Their enthusiasm shone as they reflected on the summer and indulged in their creations.
Some of the interns began to sound like connoisseurs. “This was all influenced by traditional Italian pizza,” one student says. “A major focal point was to create it from scratch to ensure a healthy frozen pizza. We have only vegetable toppings, wheat in the crust, no sugar in the sauce, and less cheese than most frozen pizzas.”
Another student gushed about the power of collaboration. “The pizza is gorgeous. It didn’t start out this way, but now it’s absolutely beautiful to see our product. The cool thing is we had PEOPLE program kids, Mentoring Positive kids, UW kids, so we tried to blend different people’s tastes together. I’m trying to not be too sentimental because this is so different than when we first started. This tastes like it was professionally produced, and it’s crazy to say that we did this!”
Another boiled his satisfaction down more succinctly: “Dude, this tastes amazing.”
The PEOPLE Program’s Lasting Influence
The positive feedback and enthusiasm of the students is what excites Browne. “I see a lot of really talented and motivated students come through the program,” he says. “It’s energizing to be reminded that there are a lot of talented kids out there who just need some encouragement. Watching them have these light bulb moments is really rewarding.”
Lawless has also found his work with PEOPLE students gratifying. Not only is he able to teach and mentor rising seniors through their internships, he also works with PEOPLE scholars after they become UW students.
“I have been on campus for 26 years, and I’ve worked with tons of students,” Lawless says. “Five of the best have been PEOPLE scholars, and Donale is the latest in a long line of really exceptional undergraduates. Even once they get into their careers, we want them to come back and interact with new PEOPLE students.”
That network of support and encouragement exemplifies the benefits of PEOPLE and the goals of the food and agriculture program. CALS faculty involved in the program hope that more students are able to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the program and find their passion. For Isaiah Gordon, a junior in 2016, this is exactly what PEOPLE provided.
“The rigorous classes have prepared me for the upcoming year so that I can go above and beyond in school,” Gordon says. “One class I found particularly great is the food systems course. It provided me with hands-on experiences that promote health and sustainable food. It has changed the way I eat and how I view the world. There were many field trips that gave me the opportunity to explore different careers in the food system. I recommend anyone get familiar with the food system because this ultimately can help our society in the future.
“The PEOPLE program also gave me the opportunity to connect with others and meet new friends. I can’t think of any other program that gives me all the benefits this program gives. I’m glad to be part of it.”
Experiences like Gordon’s speak to the heart of what PEOPLE and CALS are trying to achieve. And it’s a mission that Richards takes pride in forwarding. Richards graduated in August 2017 with a degree in biological systems engineering and also spent time during the 2017 summer with the PEOPLE program — this time working with Mentoring Positives students as the pizza project manager. He says he hopes to remain involved with the PEOPLE program as much as possible.
“I love working with PEOPLE students and giving back to the program that brought me into this university,” Richards says. “I’m actually able to teach them and advise them on healthy lifestyles, and to me, that’s so important for minority communities because they don’t often have that type of role model. “So the more people we get into this field, the more people we’ll impact in the long run. It’s important to me to get youth involved in projects like these because they get the exposure they might not get otherwise, and we can give them the ability to return to and improve their communities.”