Mia Finkle, UVM class of 2017, sits cross-legged on the floor of a first-grade classroom at Orchard School and rolls a head of cabbage to a student.
“Now, we’re going to say what it sounds like,” Finkle says, encouraging the children to make noise with the cruciferous vegetable. “You can rub it. You can shake it.”
The first-graders pound the cabbage. After they roll it a few times from one to another, Finkle asks them to describe how it would feel in their mouths. “Cool and wet and yummy and really, really tasty!” shouts one boy.
The cabbage game is part of the Farm-to-School program that nonprofit organization Common Roots conducts at three elementary schools in South Burlington. Finkle, a University of Vermont junior in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, started an internship with Common Roots last month to combine her interest in working with kids and her academic concentration in dietetics.
Matthew Myers, the coordinator of UVM’s Food Systems Internship Program, knew that Common Roots would prove the right match for Finkle. After years working in marketing for the agriculture industry and building a network of connections, he has turned educational employment in food and farming into an art form.
“I like to call it a value-added service that I’m able to provide,” Myers says.
In 2012, he recognized that UVM leaders sought to provide more hands-on learning opportunities for undergraduates “and saw food systems as a focus for integrated research and action,” he says.
With positive feedback from many would-be employers, Myers sent a proposal to the UVM provost, asking for three years of funding. He got six years, starting in 2013, through UVM Extension. Within two weeks before the fall semester began, he had drummed up eight internships, and he has since made 171 placements.
Myers posts the open slots on the Catamount Job Link through the UVM Career Center and email blasts as many as 2,000 students. Most of his interns are Environmental Studies or Nutrition and Food Sciences majors, but he will work with students in any department. A business major came to him looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity, and Myers hooked him up with a guy he knew was starting up a local restaurant-related Internet venture.
When employers want interns, Myers ensures that that they properly structure their objectives and assists with writing the job descriptions. He solicits organizations that he thinks would make good use of an intern but aren’t set up for one.
For Common Roots, which focuses on connecting children to their local food system, he helped create the intern program. “You can’t just walk in and have a high-quality internship,” he says. “You want to make sure there’s communication about student learning goals and organizational expectations. So you want there to be gains on both sides.”
For students with a firm grasp of their goals, Myers can pinpoint the ideal “host site.” For those less certain of their career paths, he assesses their interests to find a potential good fit. Many students meet with Myers multiple times, and he offers assistance crafting resumes and cover letters.
Julia Helms, an environmental studies major ready to graduate in December, heard about Myers in her junior year when she anxiously wondered what to do with her degree. He placed her with the Intervale Food Hub in Burlington and, this year, with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.
“Once I knew about him and his magical powers in setting people up with jobs, especially jobs they want, I just kept going back to him,” Helms says. “He just has a way of looking at what you’ve done and letting you know how to market yourself.”
The work has boosted her confidence, her sense of professionalism and has shaped her plans for using her academic concentration in Food, Land and Community, Helms says. For her capstone project at the Ag agency, she is developing a framework for categorizing farmstand operations across the state and a database of those operators.
“This perfectly aligns with everything I’ve been studying,” Helms says. “This is a place that’s doing really good things for the food system.”
Finkle made a similar connection at Common Roots, teaching kids the value of good nutrition and healthy choices -- a role she is considering as a career. She would like to find ways for students to take the information back to their kitchen tables.
“I think parents would like that, too, if kids came home with a kale salad recipe that they want to try,” she says.
For the first month, Finkle mostly has observed and assisted Lizzie Bogosian, the coordinator of the Farm-to-School program for Common Roots. Later in the semester, Finkle will develop her own lesson plan and lead most of it in the classroom.
The intern’s increasing responsibility last year was critical for Bogosian, she says. “That went a long way for me,” she says. “So I could sit back and watch the kids. That’s harder for me when I’m speaking, to know if I’m getting through to them.”
Farm-to-School starts with a survey to determine which foods the students have tried and liked. Finkle has proposed, as one of her internship projects, adding a second survey at the end of the year to gauge what lessons stuck most with the students.
At the end of the cabbage session, the students conduct a “taste test.” Bogosian and Finkle distribute small bowls of fresh cabbage salad and offer another more exotic cabbage dish -- sauerkraut.
Later, Finkle says she is pleased that many kids agree to venture into unfamiliar territory -- much as she has for her internship.
“It’s definitely up to the intern to grow where they want to,” she says, “and get out of it what they want to.”