New Internship Plants Seeds of Knowledge on Food Systems

Small vegetable plants waiting to be planted in community garden.

Small vegetable plants waiting to be planted in community garden.

(April 23, 2018) – One in six people in Florida go hungry and 13 million children in the United States do not have regular healthy food at home, according to the Fresh Initiatives Support Hub (FISH).

USF St. Petersburg is offering a way for students to get first-hand knowledge on hunger and food access by getting involved in community sustainable food projects through a new Food Systems Internship program. The internship is offered during the spring or fall semester and places candidates with local organizations involved in food production, distribution and access, processing, resource recovery and marketing.

“Broadly, the goal is to expose students to the issues of food deserts and access to quality food,” said Jyoti Rao, Internship Coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences. “These are issues that require complex understanding, and through this internship students get to visit different parts of the community and see that it takes everyone to create change.”

The Food Systems Internship connects students with people and organizations in Pinellas County who have dedicated their careers to working with underrepresented populations to provide education and access to quality food. The experience includes educational sessions throughout the semester that are taught by local food experts. Students learn the impact of food systems, the basics of gardening, national policies around food and hunger issues, and entrepreneurship to name a few.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers.

“Some people in the Lealman community [in Pinellas County] are on the verge of homelessness,” said Cortney Roquemore, a senior psychology major and Food Systems intern working with FISH. “I grew up in the inner-city and was more fortunate than others, but I saw firsthand the impact of poverty.”

The mission of FISH is to inspire a new culture of eating that is accessible, affordable, nutritious and delicious.

Roquemore is working in the Lealman district conducting door-to-door surveys helping to inform residents of their local Pinellas PAL First Fruit Hydroponics Farm, a non-profit U-pick farm benefitting the children of Lealman. The survey asks how Lealman residents feel about harvesting their own food and provides education on access to quality food.

“I wanted to get out more in the community, to feel and learn what is going on and food is a great way to bring the community together,” Roquemore said. “I am really enjoying this hands-on experience, educating people on nutrition, empowering them to grow their own food and working together for a good cause.”

Malory Foster, IFAS staff member, and Cortney Roquemore, USFSP student, work on a Garden Build Project at the Lealman Asian Neighborhood Family Center.

Malory Foster, IFAS staff member, and Cortney Roquemore, USFSP student, work on a Garden Build Project at the Lealman Asian Neighborhood Family Center.

The internship program also encourages students to participate in Friday Community Days to learn about organizations who have a central mission around food systems. There are multiple group activities, where students get to meet and learn about what challenges they may encounter during the internship and how to work through them and share their success stories.

“This is great because they don’t just work with one employer, they get opportunities to meet at different sites – it may be a farm, a garden at a school or a meeting with the City of St. Petersburg Urban Planning Department,” Rao said. “It allows students exposure to multiple organizations during their internship, with the same principles and mission around food service.”

The Edible Peace Patch is one of those organizations available to student interns, specifically working with eight local Title 1 elementary school gardens. Title 1 schools have a high percentage of children from low-income families and are often situated in food deserts. These educational school gardens exist through community partnerships and local resources.

Grace Sims, a junior biology and geospatial science major, is working with students at Maximo and Fairmount Park elementary schools. She teaches first through fourth graders the basics of gardening, why it is important and where food comes from. They also get to plant seeds, prune plants and harvest food from the gardens.

“It surprised me that some of these kids initially didn’t know where food came from beyond the grocery store,” Sims said.  “But they are learning so much.”

The Edible Peace Patch reviewed 12 different studies on the benefits of school gardens from 2002 to 2012. They found that garden-based learning has a positive impact on students’ grades, knowledge, attitudes and behavior.

“Hands-on learning is just so much better than learning in a classroom,” Sims said. “I never thought I could grow my own food, but I have learned that I am fully capable of planting and growing my own garden. I am sure it is the same for the kids, they probably remember and learn more through hands-on experiences with food.”

Teaming up with Eckerd College, University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), St. Petersburg College and a myriad of Pinellas County organizations, USFSP students are learning the importance of food systems through community engagement.

“It is a meaningful experience for me to see the impact of students interacting with our community,” Rao said. “We hope that this program will inspire new leaders to take on these issues and find collaborative solutions.”

To learn more about the Food Systems Internship or to apply:

Contact Jyoti Rao:


Food Systems Internship application:

Story written by Karlana June, USFSP Content Specialist