Q: Tell us about your summer internship.

This summer I worked for the Springfield Food Policy Council specifically in their Gardening the Community program. The program teaches youth from urban areas how to farm. Throughout the summer they grow food, maintain the gardens, and harvest. In addition, the youth operate a farm store that sells the fresh fruits and vegetables produced on the farm. It’s mostly operated by the youth during the summer.

My job there was to interact with the kids and inform them that what they’re doing is an integral piece of public health. I’ve done a lot of work with Springfield Food Policy Council. This summer, I worked as an advocate. I was talking to different organizations about food insecurity and racial injustice in farming. A lot of farming is led by white, corporate organizations. A lot of land isn’t owned by BIPOC communities. I wanted to bring that to light and exercise that people of color need to be in the spotlight just like everyone else.

We are currently working on expanding access to healthy food. We are organizing the expansion of farmers markets in Springfield and making sure related organizations know we were here and part of the conversation. We are also still working to expand HIP and SNAP benefits in the Springfield area. Many people who qualify for those benefits don’t know it so we explored ways to get those people the information they need. We are also trying to get more businesses HIP and SNAP certified. Many people in the Springfield community shop at corner stores so we want to make sure those businesses can accept the benefits.

Another thing I did was lead food distribution. This past spring we at the Springfield Food Policy Council partnered with BIPOC and immigrant farmers in Lancaster. We could collect the food grown by the farmers and pack it in a food box which is then shipped all across the state to hospitals, community health centers, and children's programs. It’s really important that people have access to healthy food and fresh vegetables.

Q: What led you to this program initially?

My parents are farmers. I’ve always been passionate about farming and being able to advocate for my parents is something I’ve always been interested in.  The whole system of food is not centered around people of color, it’s centered around privileged communities so it’s important to me to advocate for land access for people of color. I feel that having land is important for people. It is very necessary for people to own something for themselves and be able to operate on the land themselves.

Hellen Muma and colleagues gardening
Hellen and colleagues gardening

Q: How has UMass prepared you for this experience?

I have learned a lot about public health especially how general it is. UMass taught me how everything is interconnected. For example, food insecurity, it’s not just food. Food is housing, health, and wellness. COVID showed us that people who have underlying diseases are more susceptible to illness and diseases and that relates to food. When you have access and are eating food that’s healthy you’re taking care of yourself and are less susceptible to illness and diseases. If you give access to fresh fruits, vegetables, education, and healthcare, it all comes together.

Q: What are your plans for after school?

I’m currently in my +1 of epidemiology. I really love epidemiology. I'm really interested in infectious diseases and global health. Working with HIV, AIDS, and malaria. However, after working with the Springfield Food Policy Council, that’s changed a little. I’ve learned a lot about farming, food access, and food insecurity. So my dream career would be working in global health but with food.

Q: Why did you choose UMass?

It’s really close to home. I didn’t want to be too far from home. Not only that, but the opportunities at UMass are so vast. Anything you want to do you can do it. There are a lot of opportunities. I’ve met a lot of great people, especially in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. My advisors are amazing. They really helped me set up these internships and connect me with the right people. The people and the resources led me to UMass.

Q: Do you have any advice for new students?

Just breathe. When I first started school I was stressed and wanted to do everything. So just breathe and relax. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen after school. You will figure it out eventually.