"I’ve been where they are": Van Buren County nutrition educator journeys from student to teacher

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.


As an eighth-grader, Daisy Manriquez loved learning to garden through the Van Buren Intermediate School District's (VBISD) Migrant Summer School Program, supported by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program education (SNAP-Ed) funding. Today, Manriquez is 24 and the tables have turned: her job is leading SNAP-Ed programming to educate a new generation on healthy eating and physical fitness.

Daisy Manriquez leads a classroom program.

Manriquez is the nutrition education coordinator for VBISD's Project LEAN (Linking Education, Activity and Nutrition), a six-class nutrition education program that serves more than 12,000 students throughout Southwest Michigan. The program is made possible through funding from a Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) SNAP-Ed grant. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for SNAP-Ed. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers competitive grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.


A couple of years ago a childhood friend sent Manriquez an old brochure containing a short article on the Migrant Summer School Program, which Manriquez wrote when she was still in eighth grade. The program was special to her then, but it means even more to her as an adult.


"I had forgotten that I had written about the garden and didn't even know that SNAP-Ed was involved back then," Manriquez says. "It was a nice opportunity to reflect on the ways that the program has been a positive influence throughout my life."


From SNAP-Ed student to educator


Manriquez's parents, originally from Mexico, had spent a number of years working as seasonal farm workers and split their time between Florida and Michigan. They already had four daughters when Manriquez was born and they decided to settle in the small village of Decatur, Mich. There Manriquez discovered the Migrant Summer School Program, which supports the education of migrant workers' children. Manriquez and other Migrant Summer School Program participants enjoyed working on a community garden and learning the basics of growing healthy food.


"I had lots of good experiences with SNAP-Ed but learning about the gardening process really opened my eyes. I thought about my parents, out there 10 hours a day, and all that they had to go through," Manriquez says. "I had no idea about soil or how vegetables got ripe or composting. I remember just loving everything I was learning about."

Daisy Manriquez.

While Manriquez was still in eighth grade, one of her teachers pushed her to apply for a scholarship available for children of migrant workers. Winning a full scholarship allowed her to eventually study criminal justice and social work at Western Michigan University, making her the first person in her family to attend college.


In the last year of her studies, when one of her internships fell through, Manriquez's advisor reached out to Tom Richardson, VBISD's administrator for business development and partnerships, who offered her a 60-day internship. From there, he hired her into a part-time role and then her current full-time position.


"Daisy came back to our community quite by accident, and it was the best thing that could have happened. She has really set the standard for what we are trying to do," Richardson says.


Now, Richardson says the sound of students squealing with happiness is common when they see Manriquez (or the Nutrition Lady, as many call her) in their school's hallway. Richardson says migrant children and their parents relate to her, and the result has been tremendous.


"We've gone to migrant camps together, and it can be really tough when you don't speak Spanish or don't have the same cultural background and knowledge," Richardson says. "But Daisy does and understands the community in so many ways."


Continuing community change


The fact that SNAP-Ed catalyzes community change at many levels — policy, community, family, and individual — was what initially intrigued Manriquez about working on Project LEAN. She also serves as VBISD's policy, systems, and environmental changes (PSE) lead, a role that speaks to her interest in social justice and her passion for creating better policies and collaborations.

Daisy Manriquez leads a classroom program.

The Project LEAN program focuses on wrap-around community change, which means that Manriquez is not only doing direct education in the schools but also PSE work in the community. There are six SNAP-Ed "domains" that Manriquez considers: work, play, learn, live, shop, and eat. This is where places like food pantries, grocery stores, and early childcare centers can benefit from SNAP-Ed PSE initiatives.


Manriquez explains that if she's teaching in a classroom, she'll suss out ways to provide wrap-around support by doing SNAP-Ed work in the local community. For example, she might identify a food pantry and collaborate with the pantry director on ways they can adopt PSE changes. The result could be the addition of signage promoting the five food groups, local food, or the USDA's MyPlate program. Or the pantry might implement a policy change, like adjusting its operating hours to improve access to healthy food.


"Today the program extends beyond the schools. It’s out in the community, and that's where my focus is. I involve parents, teachers, food pantry workers, and grocery store workers," Manriquez says. "It's policy, community work, and environmental change work, in addition to nutrition education work."


Manriquez's knowledge and enthusiasm are contagious in and out of the schools, according to Richardson. He recalls a recent program she held in a church where 100% of the Hispanic participants reported increasing their fresh fruit and vegetable intake and an increase in physical activity because of her programming. Richardson says she's also been able to provide culturally appropriate twists to food tastings that had previously focused on more European or American foods.


This past summer, Manriquez led the effort to bring Project LEAN to the Migrant Summer School Program, which was held virtually due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns. She says some of the fundamental teachings of the program, such as proper handwashing techniques and the importance of getting nutrition from all the food groups, figured into each lesson.


"It's a program that, even from a distance, kids are still resonating with, and that's remained very important," Manriquez says. “Their happy young faces touch me because I’ve been where they are, and I really feel the program in my heart."

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.