The wonderful thing about food is you get three votes a day. Every one of them has the potential to change the world.
For some college students, the opportunity for three meals a day may not exist on a regular basis. The cost of tuition, books, and housing may lead to food insecurity. While this is not a new problem—there have always been some students living on the edge of poverty—changes to student aid from the federal government during the Reagan administration in the 1980s made it more difficult for students from low-income families to afford higher education, a problem that has become progressively worse over the decades. Students may think cutting out a meal (or meals) in order to pay for books seems like the most logical short-term solution—but it’s not sustainable.
Solving the problem of food insecurity—whether for college students or workers in below-minimum-wage jobs—requires efforts on many fronts. Katrina Weakland is up to the challenge. After a year working on the Student Farm at University Park, Weakland is now wrapping up a year as a “community wellness coordinator” at Penn State Altoona under the AmeriCorps program. Her position was funded through the contributions of two local groups, the Healthy Blair County Coalition and Empowering Lives Foundation, as well as support from Penn State’s Sustainable Communities Collaborative and the Student Farm at University Park. The funding was solicited and coordinated by Tom Shaffer, coordinator of Penn State Altoona’s Center for Community-Based Studies.
Even though she’s from Hollidaysburg, Weakland’s path back to Penn State Altoona was not so much planned as it was luck. Leslie Pillen, associate director of the Farm and Food Systems and Sustainable Student Farm design coordinator at University Park, “applied for a seed grant,” Weakland says, “to expand her program to commonwealth campuses.” Behrend and Beaver rose to the top of the list, but through conversations with Shaffer and local community groups earlier in the year, Pillen knew of a growing interest in local food access in Blair County.
“Because I was from Blair County,” Weakland continues, “and there was interest from Altoona students in the sustainable food program, Tom Shaffer asked if I was interested in pursuing the position.” Her degree in geography from Penn State, she says, is not an indicator of her career path but instead a guide: “Geography lets me be very open to where I’m going.”
In the new position Weakland would be tasked with answering questions such as “What is our food system? How can we understand it?” At the same time, Shaffer was now faced with his own question: “Where can we make maximum use of Katrina?” While “some of the ideas included a food pantry or community garden,” he says, nothing was set in stone beyond this position being community-engaged scholarship, which means “how can we partner with students, faculty, and the local community?”
Shaffer was also sure that with Weakland “we can experiment here. The reason that Katrina came on board was to move out of that traditional mode wherein in each party has some responsibility for community-engaged student projects, but no one is responsible for ensuring the best possible outcome for all. We have someone whose job it is to get things done, let’s see if it works.” He was particularly interested in “how can we change the direction of how we engage students in community projects and be part of a problem-solving enterprise?”
Shaffer acknowledged that Weakland was going to face some hurdles. “A lot of the time the community has a different expectation of student work. They usually want a product and they have expectations of how it should be produced. They don’t want to work with students because they don’t understand the learning process, they may not have the time or have thought about what could be valuable to the student.” So of course, yet another question is “how can we educate the community about how to work with students?”
While the focus was always on how to improve people’s lives through the food system, during her year with AmeriCorps Weakland worked with a myriad of organizations and efforts, such as the Southern Alleghenies Local Food Network, who works to “identify where the gaps exist in our current community food system—for example, who’s growing/producing, what are local policies and regulations, where can the community access healthy food?” Weakland also helped coordinate a three-day community food systems symposium, developed a proposal for a Farm-to-School curriculum pilot program in a Blair County School District, and designed and implemented a community-wide steps challenge for the Healthy Blair County Coalition’s Let’s Move Committee. (See below for a complete list of her projects.)
Applying for a grant they ended up not receiving was still beneficial for Weakland—“the foundation who didn’t give us the grant pointed us to Iowa State University and their local foods program,” part of ISU’s Farm, Food, and Enterprise Development program and another source of information and inspiration. She says connecting with Iowa State helped her with “understanding how to build trust in the different sectors of the food system and removing the information silos [lack of information sharing] in communities.” The goal is to “bring people together through food for the greater good and health of a community.”
Sometimes one small connection that Weakland facilitates turns into a much larger project. She met with Donna Bon, assistant teaching professor of entrepreneurship, who, Weakland says, like many people “didn’t realize the problems of food security. She raised this concern and wished she could do more. I said, ‘You can. Sue Patterson [director of student diversity and inclusion programming director] had been saying she wanted to do something with the food pantry on this campus. So I told Donna about Sue Patterson. This was a perfect opportunity for students to get involved.”
Weakland ended up working with four teams of Sheetz Fellows, “one each for Ivyside, the downtown campus, and the community, as well as a communications team,” she says, who worked on projects such as “a plan for making the pantry on campus sustainable. They worked with the community and other Penn State campus food pantries to provide a template of how a food book/pantry facility runs and how to adapt models to the campus food pantry at Altoona.”
One of the biggest hurdles for students with food insecurity is the stigma associated with needing to use a food pantry. The Sheetz Fellows tackled that mindset head-on; Weakland says, “they created campus awareness through social media, campus education events, and an end-of-semester food drive. They reinvigorated the pantry Facebook page (see Ivyside Eats), created a new logo, and created a website for the pantry. They also helped to start the conversation to create a work-study position for Fall 2019 to help sustain the food pantry.” The Sheetz Fellows’s efforts yielded results: Weakland says that, according to Sue Patterson, “in the Spring 2019 semester the pantry had a 250% increase captured from the pantry sign-in. The Sheetz Fellows helped create awareness of the valuable resources for students struggling with food insecurity.”
When she reflects on her job path, without hesitation Weakland recommends AmeriCorps as a job choice for graduates who aren’t yet sure what they want to do. “It’s a great experience, not just for students but anyone looking for a different career path. I’ve had different learning experiences throughout the whole year I’ve been doing this.” In addition to acquiring new skill sets, she says, “it made me look at geography differently—how we’re connected but also how we’re disconnected as well.”
Over the past year Weakland has most definitely “grown where she is planted.” When her AmeriCorps time is up, she will look to continue the work she is doing. “You eat food every day but you never think about it. It’s something we don’t talk about. When you really start looking at it, it’s a deep rabbit hole—where it comes from, who consumes it and how they consume it, who profits.” She thinks people should “vote with your fork”: Support the local community and local farmers.
—Therese Boyd, ’79
AmeriCorps Overview for Katrina Weakland: Projects and Roles, 2018–19
Local Health Foods Initiative
- Lead Facilitator: Southern Alleghenies Local Food Network
Organized and facilitated monthly meetings to assess the Southern Allegheny foodshed. Gleaned knowledge from different sectors and representatives of the regional food systems to understand possibilities for local food system change.
- Co-Coordinator: Community Food Systems Symposium (December 17–19, 2018)
Planned and facilitated pilot program for community food system hosted by Iowa State University Extension. Identified key participants, designed marketing material, helped source funding for the event.
- Project Manager: Sheetz Fellows Junior Class Project, “Addressing Food Insecurity in Penn State Communities”
Led and facilitated group discussions about food insecurity, community feed programs (food banks, backpack programs, nutrition programs, and other community resources available for families and individuals facing food insecurity). Students developed a marketing plan, campus awareness, and outlined a logistics/sustainable business model of a campus food pantry.
- Project Consultant: “Pathways to Sustainable Food Systems Change: A Proof of Concept Study” (LAS Capstone Project)
Offered knowledge and insight from experience working with the Sustainable Food Systems Program at Penn State and ISU Workshop.
- Coordinator: Farm-to-School/Community Garden initiative
Developed project proposal to build Farm-to-School curriculum pilot program in Blair County School District. Collaborating with Penn State Altoona to engage Education students in designing curriculum for local school districts. Led and facilitated discussions with local community/schools/gardens.
Healthy Living Initiative
- Project Co-Coordinator: Active Living Steps Challenge
Designed and implemented a community-wide steps challenge for the Healthy Blair County Coalition’s Let’s Move Committee. Engaged roughly 1,435 participants and captured data through social media and weekly Google forms. The Challenge generated over 91 million steps—approximately 43,500 miles, or 30-plus miles per participant—over 30 days.
Social Determinants of Health Initiative
- Project Consultant: Connections4Health (social determinants of health) project
Identified community partners, organized meetings with faculty members and partners.
- Author and Designer: Poverty in Blair County: A Story Map
Collected demographic data for Blair County and poverty-related resources; created stories of the “living wage” gap that keeps families and individuals in poverty for the Healthy Blair County Coalition’s poverty work group.