Feature: The Most Important Meal

A local teen finds success by growing healthy food
by Dana Henry


The school bell rings and teenagers fill the entrance halls of University City High School. Many are running and some are calling out to their friends, relieved from a long day of classes. A young man apologizes to the woman at the front desk who just reprimanded him for cursing. A tall girl with broad shoulders playfully shakes a boy in glasses who looks about half her size. An unplugged metal detector rests beside the padlocked front doors, and several feet away are a few pregnant girls.

Laquanda Dobson, a tall, dark-skinned young woman of 17 with the lean build of an athlete, approaches me. She says we can go upstairs to get away from the noise and she’ll show me the classroom of the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative (AUNI, often called UNI). Inside the heavy wooden door, a group of students gathered around large metal tables with portable burners are cooking whole wheat, veggie-stuffed quesadillas to sell as an afternoon snack for teachers and students. It’s something they do when demand for UNI prepared meals is especially high.

UNI is a UPenn project to alleviate staggering rates of cancer, obesity and diabetes in West Philadelphia neighborhoods. Sayer High School and University City High School, where UNI operates, serve communities that, despite their proximity to a historically wealthy university, are among the poorest in the nation. But instead of using health screening or lectures, UNI uses fresh fruits and veggies grown in an edible garden behind the school. The garden allows students to choose from three paid internships: Carpenters build and maintain farm structures; farmers tend and harvest; and teen peer educators of Food ED Squad (FEDS) teach healthy cooking to both children and adults at churches, clinics and other schools. UNI produce is then sold at Clark Park or made into meals. The program also makes compost from scraps that come from the White Dog Café and the Pedal Co-op, and they use plants grown by prisoners in the City Harvest program.

Teens at FEDS learn how to prepare healthy meals, like stir fry with purple cabbage and carrots or butternut squash soup, using food from the garden. They learn the nutritional benefits and the principles of healthy habits, and practice their lessons before teaching them live in five session parts. During the sessions, teen peer educators work with the audience to prepare meals.

Laquanda is the student contact for FEDS, which means when her supervisor gets busy, she handles the paperwork and the other students. But when she was in middle school, Laquanda’s grades were low and she wasn’t very excited about school. One day, Tony Larson, a UNI supervisor, visited her class. Laquanda had always loved cooking and she asked him a lot of questions. When she got to high school, she saw Larson again. He remembered her from the visit and asked her to apply to UNI. That was almost three years ago, and she’s been with UNI ever since.

Laquanda says she’s learned healthy eating as well as public speaking, but she’s also gotten better at school.  She credits UNI with helping her pass geometry. “They’re like your second family,” she says. “They make sure you get class help. If you’re having a problem, they help you; if you’re having a problem at home—anything—they help you.”

Kristin Schwab, UNI’s Youth Development Coordinator, and Danny Gerber, UNI’s Director, call Laquanda a star. The high school junior volunteers for Philadelphia Urban Food and Fitness Alliance (PUFFA), an urban health awareness group, and attends national youth conferences on community health, including Root Community Conference in the California Bay Area and Kellogg’s Foundation Conferences in Arizona, Detroit and San Antonio. She’s also helped create and star in a collection of YouTube videos on cooking and healthy habits. “Laquanda’s taken all the education and opportunities we’ve given her and [she] really ran with it,” Schwab says. “She goes to more conferences than I’ve ever been to, and has really taken a lead in advocacy and outreach.”

Laquanda has a quiet demeanor, but she isn’t shy. She tells me that before I came she was having a sad day. Someone stole her coat when she took it off to get through the metal detector that morning. She turned around and it was gone. But she brightens as we go to the third floor, past track practice held in the empty hallways, to see the “green room” where seedlings are grown. We make our way outside to the garden, which is bright and green with wet grass, where fruit trees are beginning to bloom and teenage boys run hoes over bare patches of dark earth. Laquanda smiles and says that the garden is starting to look beautiful again after a long winter. “We don’t have a track because we have a garden outside instead,” she explains. “But I’d rather have the garden.”

Around the 5300 block of Race Street, where Laquanda lives, the closest thing to a produce stand is the Fresh Grocer six blocks away. Each morning as she walks to school she sees cab drivers vying for customers, trash blowing around, and people smoking, which Laquanda says really irritates her. “I see people just dying by these corner stores,” she says. “When I come to school, I see a lot of kids eating chips instead of eating an apple. Our community could be better if we changed around our corner stores. Philly could be way better if we had locally-grown food, and cheap. Healthy food is so high [in price]. If it were cheap, more people would buy it. It also needs to be accessible; it’s too far away.”

Laquanda estimates that 85 percent of her family is obese, and thinks it’s because of fatty, processed foods and high sodium. But she’s shown an aunt’s family how to eat healthier, and this summer they plan to build a garden together at the aunt’s house. “A lot of people really need help knowing the right things to eat,” she explains. “There’s a lot of people out there that have diabetes, have asthma, have a lot of health problems. I think if we start young, we can start helping our families. If you start when you’re young, you’ll be better when you’re older.”

As a child, Laquanda’s mother cooked on occasion, but she worked a lot and they ate a lot of fried food. Now, Laquanda does the cooking (her signature dish is vegetable rice, which is brown rice mixed with red peppers, carrots, onions and tomatoes) and has taught her mom how to bake and sauté.

The rest of Laquanda’s free time is divided between track practice, Food Ed Squad, laughing with her friends and studying for the SATs. After graduation, she hopes to go on to Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales, and wants to teach healthy eating to high school students, open her own restaurant or become a nutritionist. “Something to do with food; I just love food,” she says. “I think food can make people better by the emotion [food] gives you. Some foods make you happy, some foods make you angry. That’s why I’m always happy—because I eat the right foods.”