How Does Your Garden Grow?
February 11, 2011
For the past three years, scholarship recipient Lan Dinh, C’11, has worked quite literally from the ground up to improve health and nutrition in West Philadelphia through Penn-assisted high school-based gardens. As a freshman, the petite, enthusiastic West Philly native never imagined that Penn’s commitment to engaging its nearby neighbors would come to define her time on campus and charter her course for the future.
Through the Netter Center’s Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative (AUNI), Lan has been part of a program few universities offer. She is an assistant supervisor “Penntern” (a work-study position) at University City High School, where she trains local high school students to become Peer Educators in their communities to promote healthier nutrition. “We teach information-packed lessons about the five healthy habits and give students a fluid framework for lesson plans,” she explains. Pennterns assist Coordinators, young professionals who teach about cooking and gardening, and then the Peer Educators teach one another. “My ‘aha’ moment was seeing how well the students learned once they had to teach others,” Lan reports.
Lan saw this play out most vividly during her second year with AUNI, when she helped shape a six-week summer camp. There, Peer Educator high school campers took turns growing healthy vegetables in the school and cooking them —watching their vegetables go from seed to table. Each week during the camp, the high schoolers took what they learned into their communities, to homes for the elderly, day care centers, and even abandoned lots. At the end of each week they came together again to discuss what worked and what didn’t.
“When Peer Educators go into the community and teach others, they forge connections, especially with kids their age and younger,” Lan explains. “They’re able to take ownership of their knowledge and become leaders. They feel empowered to speak to their community.” When Lan asks them why this work is so important, the kids tell her it’s because their families are suffering from food-related health issues like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. “Where AUNI makes the most difference is through peer education,” says Lan.
Laquanda Dobson, a graduate of University City High School and now a Peer Educator Consultant, is a shining example. Quiet and confident—and wearing an AUNI hoodie with “food justice” emblazoned on the back—she relates her first experience teaching: “I was so nervous when I started. I kept practicing, pacing across the floor.”
Now Laquanda is encouraging a new group of high school kids and giving them the courage to step up and be leaders of change in the neighborhood. “Food justice means having access to affordable, healthy food in your community. With the AUNI school gardens and food stands, it’s possible,” she explains. “Our garden doesn’t look like much in the winter, but watch when spring comes. Herbs, kale, zucchini, everything you can think of. I used to think healthy food was nasty, but now it’s in my brain to eat healthy. I cook all the time, and it’s changed the way my mom cooks and what she buys, too.”
Reflecting on her experience, Lan noticed a parallel between the work Penn students do through AUNI and the work Peer Educators do. “We apply what we’re learning—about food deserts, for example—as a way to help empower others in the surrounding community.” The Netter Center for Community Partnerships, endowed by Edward (C’53) and Barbara Netter at the exciting start of Penn’s Making History Campaign, is the driving force behind Penn’s matrix of programs like AUNI and its partnership with Sayre High School, one of the first university-assisted community schools in the United States. Putting Penn’s academic might behind vital community partnerships, the Netter Center is inspiring students like Lan and Laquanda to become innovators in civic life.
With bright futures ahead, Lan prepares to graduate and see her dream of working in nutrition-based public health take root, and Laquanda plans to grow her love of cooking into a way to help middle-school kids get on, and stay on, a healthy track academically and physically. Both come often to the AUNI office and will be attending the Real Food Challenge this month in Boston.
“AUNI questioned and expanded what I knew about education and learning,” Lan says. “Using a garden to learn and to teach is a beautiful thing.”
Lan Dinh, C'11, is the recipient of the Driscoll Family Endowed Scholarship for Public Service. On track to graduate in May, Lan is now committed to a career in public
health and dreams of seeding change in food systems on a global level.
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