PEOPLE program intern works to diversify food and ag fields

Ten years ago, as a middle school student, Marcus Bolles spent part of his summer exploring academic opportunities in the UW-Madison’s PEOPLE program, a program that aims to help underrepresented middle school and high school students expand their academic interests and develop good study skills. Now a UW-Madison senior double majoring in Community and Environmental Sociology and Environmental Studies, Bolles has taken on the role of his former PEOPLE program mentors, by working as a student intern for the program’s Diversifying Wisconsin’s Food and Agriculture Industry initiative.

Steve Ventura (far left), leader of the Diversifying Wisconsin’s Food and Agriculture Industry initiative, with PEOPLE program graduates and Will Allen of Milwaukee's Growing Power.
Steve Ventura (far left), leader of the Diversifying Wisconsin’s Food and Agriculture Industry initiative, with two PEOPLE program graduates and Growing Power’s Will Allen (far right).

Developed through a partnership between the PEOPLE program, CALS, UW-Extension and Growing Power, Inc., the Diversifying Wisconsin’s Food and Agriculture Industry initiative started in 2012 as a summer program to introduce high school students from all backgrounds to college majors and career paths in food and agriculture that they might not otherwise consider.

“The goal is to help increase the diversity of the food and agriculture workforce down the line,” says initiative leader Steve Ventura, a UW-Madison professor of soil science, who is working to expand the initiative to engage a broader range of agricultural businesses.

As as the initiative’s Urban Agriculture Coordinator, Bolles knows it’s important to get young people to see past old stereotypes of farmers and the farming business, and to point out academic areas related to food and agriculture that are commonly overlooked, such as microbiology or biochemistry.

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Marcus Bolles

“Whenever these students would think of agriculture, they would just think of a classic farmer—but agriculture is a lot more than that,” explains Bolles.

It’s also important to make things fun and interesting. To that end, Bolles organizes field trips for the students. He’s taken groups to the F.H. King Community Gardens and the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant to help them see where food comes from and how it’s processed before it arrives at restaurants or the grocery store.

The initiative also helps connect students with UW faculty who can provide insight into academic fields and career opportunities, which can help students make good, informed decisions about majors earlier in their academic careers.

In one ongoing project, high school students involved in the initiative are working with Bolles, UW-Extension’s Greg Lawless and Growing Power’s Robert Pierce to develop a new protein bar using primarily locally-grown ingredients. As part of the project, the students developed a marketing plan to sell their final product in local stores.

There’s also a “Pizza Day” held at the end of each summer, when students fix up their own pizzas using local ingredients. While the students cook their pizzas, teachers talk about the ingredients and their origins. According to Bolles, this fun – and tasty – project helps students identify with the foods they eat. They also develop marketing plans for their pizza creations to learn a business perspective.

The Diversifying Wisconsin’s Food and Agriculture Industry initiative was developed through the USDA-supported Community and Regional Food Systems project, also led by Ventura.

For more information or to support this initiative, visit the university’s STEM Diversity Network website.