“Born and raised in a food desert in inner-city Milwaukee, I never thought I’d be standing in front of you today,” Desire Smith told a packed house on campus last spring. “The closest connection to agriculture I could make was to travel to the nearest Walmart to buy produce.”
Smith, a senior majoring in community and environmental sociology, was the only undergraduate among several speakers—including CALS Dean Kate VandenBosch— to address a meeting of the new Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition (IUAN), a multi-organizational partnership seeking to grow the urban food economy.
Smith became interested in agriculture as a student at Milwaukee’s Vincent High School, where her biology teacher took her class on visits to the school’s greenhouse. “I was intrigued by the beauty,” she says, and soon got an after-school job there.
“But the more familiar I became with agriculture, the more confused I felt about what I, coming from an urban background, could possibly offer the field,” she recalls. “Was agriculture even an appropriate concern for me to have?”
She wants the path to agriculture to be clearer for other young people of her background and has focused on that goal. She serves as an intern with the Community and Regional Food Systems project, a multiyear effort headed by CALS soil science professor Stephen Ventura to analyze and strengthen food systems in a number of cities.
And this past summer she created and coordinated urban agriculture-focused sessions for some 40 high school students enrolled in PEOPLE, a program that brings socioeconomically diverse young people to campus each summer. Smith herself is a PEOPLE alumna.
After graduating, Smith plans to get hands-on farm experi- ence through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a nonprofit that links volunteers with farmers. And after that she’s planning on graduate studies with a focus on urban agriculture.
She has her role model: Monica White, a professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. White has been an inspiring mentor to Smith.
“I look up to Monica White. I always tell her, ‘I want to be like you,’” Smith says with a laugh.