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School Daze

April 30th, 2011 - By Therese Madden

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How long does it take to forget what we learned in school? Meet one University City High School graduate who not only recalls her studies with the Urban Nutrition Initiative, but makes the lessons learned a life mission.


Whenever I report on school nutrition programs people ask if I really think they’re working. You know, they sound cool, but do they really change lives? When school is done do the kids remember anything?

One of the 10th graders preparing a raised bed

Laquanda Dobson graduated from University City High School and was really active in the Urban Nutrition Initiative program, UNI for short. Here’s what she says, “yeah oh my goodness, so much. Like before I started I used to think that vegetables came from a can.” She remembers the beginning, and her first teacher, “he was teaching me how to teach nutrition education to my peers and I was like great this is fun, I’m cooking, I always wanted to cook and I’m teaching people and helping people cause it always was a passion to help people.”

Now a Food Education Leader at the High School of the Future, Laquanda’s helping a group of 10th graders are get the raised beds ready. “Already in this bed we planted some Swiss chard and this is an onion leaf so there are onions over here.” They also learn to cook, which seems to be everyone’s favorite part of the program, including Laquanda. There is a lot more instant gratification involved in putting together and eating a meal than waiting for a garden to grow, and these are teenagers. Well, not Laquanda, “oh that was a long time ago, I sound so old.”

She’s 20. The students here say her youth works in her favor, “she has her supervisor mode, and she can get in her funny mode, her little kid mode like us, and we can relate to her,” says 10th grader, George. His classmate April chimes in, ”I think she’s a good role model cause she teaches us to get active in our school and she teaches us healthy schools to eat so we can be healthy ourselves, she cares about us, being healthy.”

So what’s cooking? “Tomorrow we are making wonderful cabbage meal, I’ll teach them the benefits of cabbage, vitamins, minerals, how cabbage is very cheap and its a traditional thing that we eat. We as in African Americans,” Laquanda says.

Grown In Detroit poster

Community is very important to Laquanda, so is food access and affordability. In addition to being an educator, she’s become an activist. In an auditorium in West Philadelphia the crowd is chanting. “Community… Unity… Movement.” Laquanda is standing on stage leading the group. They’ve just watched the documentary “Grown In Detroit.” It’s UNI’s Food Justice Movie Night and the crowd is pretty unified. I asked Laquanda if she ever wonders what her life would be like had she not encountered this nutrition program in 9th grade. She says, “my life is totally different. I think it gave me the leverage to be who I am today, because back when I first started high school my mom was working a lot and you go home you just watching TV not really doing anything. So, it was like that program came at right time, so it kept me out of trouble, doing other teenage stuff.”

She’s working to get herself back in school right now, and plans on doing this type of work for the rest of her life. “I’m a big dreamer, every day I dream about something new, but, my ultimate goal is to teach them behavioral kids how to channel their anger into cooking. Because I like working with the bad kids, you just got to get to know them and they channel their anger into cooking and the next thing you know they turn their anger into cooking and you could be the person who helped them out.”

MORE FROM FIT: Listen to Therese Madden’s story about the Urban Nutrition Initiative in University High School from the summer of 2006. Laquanda Dobson started the program that fall.



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Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative is a program of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania.

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