The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory


This spring, Nutrition 245 students Carolyn Tidwell and Katie Fesler have been getting involved in local food endeavors at their community placements. Currently, Tidwell volunteers at Carolina Campus Community Garden (CCCG) while Fesler volunteers at Farmer Foodshare. Each week, Tidwell, Fesler and their classmates reflect on their service and progress made at their community partners.

Tidwell stated, “Working with the Garden over the past couple of weeks has been wonderful. The more time I spend there, the more I love the distributions and gardening in general.” CCCG welcomes all UNC staff, faculty, students and community members to grow vegetable and fruit for UNC’s lower wage workers.

While Tidwell observes that the food distributions at the garden are a simple process and do not take long, she appreciates the opportunity it gives her to interact with the garden volunteers and UNC workers.

A volunteer at one distribution described how the workers will all bring food to meals and share amongst themselves, stated Tidwell. It appears to her that there is no sense of possession but instead a real sense of community that the CCCG has brought together.

“By the community garden providing this service to the UNC workers, it is sharing the abundance of the land and allowing them to lead a more healthy lifestyle through nutritious food products,” noted Tidwell.

Tidwell’s community placement at the CCCG has led to her examine the current food system more closely. She states she will continue ask questions focusing on food disparities while working at the Garden.

According to Fesler, she got right back into the groove of things at Farmer Foodshare after her weeklong spring break. Last week, Fesler met with her advisor and community placement group. They discussed the findings of their research focusing on price variation for products amongst different vendors including farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

Currently Fesler works on a project to help determine and expand “the ideal buyer” for the Pennies on the Pound (POP) Food Markets. This program is a pilot social enterprise developed by Farmer Foodshare. According to the nonprofit, it is designed to connect farmers with limited resources who have discounted excess food for sale with low wealth customer and agencies that increase community food security.

“I’m not entirely sure what the project is going to look like, but I’m taking it step by step and seeing where it leads me. It’s exciting to be a part of a venture that’s just getting off the ground,” stated Fesler.

Fesler and Tidwell, along with the rest of the Nutrition 245 class, will be volunteering at their community placements for the remaining five weeks of the semester – meaning much time left for even more service-learning opportunities. 

Service-Learning Students Help With Cooking Demonstration at IFFS Mobile Market

Saturday February 18th, Nutrition 245 student Christine Sun attended her first Inter-Faith Food Shuttle (IFFS) Mobile Market at the West Durham Baptist Church. Along with her service-learning group, Sun assisted in providing a healthy cooking demonstration on Confetti Kale.

“There was a lot of positive feedback from the crowd and they seemed to really enjoy the kale,” noted Sun, who will be volunteering with IFFS throughout the semester.

According to Sun, she was nervous about whether or not people would be interested in the cooking demonstration because it wasn’t many people’s main reason for coming to the Mobile Market. These Mobile Markets provide low-income communities with fresh produce, free of charge, once a month.

“However, many people seemed really interested and engaged in our demonstration.  After our demonstration, people came up to thank us and say how they really appreciated our presentation,” stated Sun.

In addition to the live cooking demonstration, a fun “monthly food challenge” was given to the crowd – to try to make a meal with three different colored fruits and vegetables.

Sun stated, “I’m interested to see if people follow through and share what they cooked at the next Mobile Market.  I really enjoyed my time at the Mobile Market, and I’m excited to start working on ideas for the next one!”

Students Share Their Initial Thoughts on Their Service-learning Community Placements

Students in Nutrition 245 (Sustainable, Local Food Systems) have begun the service-learning component of this UNC course by volunteering at their community placements. The service-learning course will allow students to examine the intersection of local foods and public health in addition to being able to make real-world contributions and a difference in their communities.

Each week, we’ll be highlighting a few of the 26 students’ reflections on their community placements. The reflections of Alexander Denunzio, Cayce Watts, Dhruv Desai, Kathryn Webb and Taylor Harper are being featured this week. They reflected on their first impressions about the organizations and the projects they will be working on over the next few months. This week’s community placements include the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, Farmer Foodshare and Carolina Campus Community Garden.

Denunzio, Desai, and their team will be assisting Market Manager Sarah Blacklin and the Carrboro Farmers’ Market to complete an in-depth SEED survey amongst the consumers and farmers attending the market as well as the local community surrounding the Farmers’ Market. Denunzio and Desai will be developing, collecting and evaluating customer data and trends at the Farmers’ Market through the SEED survey.

Amongst the survey’s specific tasks such as being a pollster and forager, Denunzio and Desai will be participating in counting or “clicking” consumers. This is because the entrances to Carrboro Farmers’ Market are not well defined, according to Denunzio.

Alex Denunzio counts customers at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market

Denunzio stated, “I can honestly say it is not what I expected – but in a good way.”

According to Denunzio, he is looking forward to working on the SEED survey because the research and the data they collect through the Carrboro Farmers’ Market can be distributed on a regional and national level to other farmers’ markets to improve efficiency and productivity.

The students are eager to engage in service-learning for many reasons – one being they know they can make a difference in their community. For instance, the SEED survey results will possibly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of farmers’ markets throughout the country and will cause people to be more concerned with locally grown food, stated Denunzio.

Desai is excited to be a part of this initiative because it will ultimately help to make a better Farmers’ Market, an organization that already does so much for the community, including doing outreach to promote local, sustainable foods from the Piedmont region. He asserts that, “by having a better Farmers’ Market, we can ensure that even more people from diverse economic backgrounds in the community have the opportunity to access healthy, nutritious, fresh and local foods grown and made by folks right here in North Carolina.”

Kevin Chung perches on a chair to get a good view as a counter for the SEED survey at the Farmers’ Market.

Cayce Webb will be volunteering at the Carolina Campus Community Garden. Webb stated, “It was fun meeting new people who were volunteering from other classes and also learning about the planting system as the garden and how the compost piles worked.  Everyone worked together very efficiently and was quick to offer help to others.”

Webb plans to continue volunteering with the garden, to possibly try to attend a veggie distribution to lower income UNC employees and to start more serious research on recipes and existing garden cooking demonstrations.

This semester, Kathryn Watts and Taylor Harper will be assisting with Farmer Foodshare’s Donation Stations at the Carrboro and Chapel Hill Farmers’ Markets. Farmer Foodshare is a nonprofit organization that raises funds and donations of fresh food for those at risk for hunger or malnutrition, while building healthy community food systems and enhancing community economic development.

Watts stated, “I was surprised to see things like beauty products and soap being sold there. The Chapel Hill market is smaller than the Carrboro market, and the winter market is especially limited. I’m interested to see how moving into the spring and summer seasons will affect turn out at the markets and donations being made to Farmer Foodshare.”

Students like Harper are already thinking of ways to help improve their community placements. “To help increase exposure, it would be ideal to have some sort of information pamphlet that the customers could peruse while shopping, which would allow them to develop a better understanding of Farmer Foodshare without interrupting their shopping experience.  I feel this would make customers more willing to donate to our cause if they understand what we are there for and would allow us to provide more food to the Interfaith Food Council,” Harper stated.

Be sure to keep reading this blog to learn more about the students’ experiences and involvement in the community throughout the spring semester.

Service-learning Students Are to Assist Local Non-profits This Spring Semester

This spring semester, Dr. Alice Ammerman, director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP), and Dr. Molly De Marco, research fellow at HPDP, are offering a course entitled Sustainable, Local Food Systems – Intersection of local foods and public health(Nutrition 245) for the first time at UNC-CH. Sustainable, Local Food Systems, an APPLES service-learning course, examines the health, economic and environmental impacts of our current food system with a focus on current efforts to build a more local, equitable and sustainable food system.

This course is a natural progression of the momentum related to the research attributed to the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture (GIL) grant and other community-based participatory research projects conducted through HPDP. During the past three years, in particular, many students have come to UNC with a passion for local food systems. Dr. Ammerman and Dr. De Marco, along with Robin Crowder, the project director for the GIL, developed this course to meet the burgeoning demand from students to get directly involved with community organizations working on sustainable agriculture projects. There is a specific enthusiasm related to addressing food access and food justice issues and students are looking to make real-world contributions and a difference in their communities. This new class will help them do just that.

Throughout the semester, students will assist community partners in their work to increase economic opportunities for small and mid-sized farmers and food entrepreneurs and to increase access to healthy food among lower income populations. The community partners include the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, Carolina Campus Community Garden, Farmer Foodshare, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Weaver Street Market.

Each week, the students will blog about their service-learning experiences and relate them back to the course’s readings and lecture. A few students’ reflections will be featured on this Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project blog from time to time.

Along with teaching assistant Linden Elder and support from CDC Prevention Specialist on assignment to HPDP, Melissa Cunningham, Dr. Ammerman and Dr. De Marco will cover local food systems topics ranging from the environment to food safety. Guest lecturers, including Dr. Marcie Ferris, UNC American Studies Professor, and Claire Lorch, Carolina Campus Community Garden Manager, are to speak during the weekly class meetings. Some speakers will present in out-of-the-classroom locations, such as the Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center. Those guest lecturers whose commutes are too far away to make it to the UNC Gillings School of Public Health will present via Skype, such as Dr. Christopher Heaney, of Johns Hopkins University.

Students will meet the expectation of service for an APPLES course of a minimum of 30 hours during the semester. Throughout the semester, students will complete an estimated 3-5 hours a week of service hours with their community partner.

Triangle University Food Studies

A surging national interest in what we eat has been mirrored in the academic world with an increasing number of students looking to formally study food and agriculture.

Some schools have started offering degree programs that center on a core food and agriculture curriculum while integrating various academic fields. NYU offers a Food Studies masters program, with the well-known Marion Nestle as faculty. Tufts offers a Agriculture, Food and Environment masters degree, which until recently was headed by Kathleen Merrigan, who now serves as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture under the USDA. The University of New Hampshire recently partnered with The University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy to offer a dual major in EcoGastronomy.

With a brilliant line up of schools in the triangle and a vibrant local food and sustainable agriculture scene to boot, I’m disappointed that no school here has yet to offer a program that integrates various academic departments for a more holistic understanding of food and agricultural issues. That said, NC State offers degrees in traditional and technical aspects of agriculture as well as a new and quite popular Agroecology undergraduate minor. Central Carolina Community College offers a hands on farming program with their Sustainable Agriculture associates degree. I also just learned about a food cluster program available to UNC undergraduate students.

Recognizing the growing interest in learning about food and agriculture from an integrative perspective, Dr. Charlie Thompson, Director of Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and Gillings Project collaborator, organized a meeting around food and farming for students and faculty who were passionate on the topics. The meeting aimed to bring faculty and students from different schools and departments together to explore ways of collaborating.

Over twenty people attended the first meeting, with a range of academic fields represented. Most of the attending faculty were already teaching incredible classes on food and agriculture within their departments. I couldn’t help but think that with these amazing faculty as resources, a program about food would bring collaboration amongst now separate departments.

Just what the group assembled will lead to, we’re not sure, but after hearing about everyone’s interests, thoughts and concerns, we decided the group would share some readings and discussion to get to know one another better. We named ourselves Triangle University Food Studies (TUFS) and plan to meet again in the early fall to discuss a book written by Norman Wirzba, a Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School, entitled “The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land.”

If you’re interested in joining our group or to keep updated on all things food related in the triangle academic world through our Ning site, shoot me an email at

Thanks for your interest,


Back to middle school I go….

It had been a long time since I last found myself in a middle school, and as I pushed my way through the glass doors into Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill my pre-adolescent memories suddenly swirled back to me – the excitement and stress of dances, trying desperately to open my locker (I was always forgetting the combo), trapper keepers, middle school plays, basketball games, the list could go on and on. I went to middle school in Tokyo, but walking down the halls of this middle school here in the Triangle, I found it felt very similar to my own.

Though this trip down memory lane was nice, I was really here to help with the 3rd annual Cyclone Games – an event sponsored by the booster club and organized and supported by Dr. Alice Ammerman and several UNC graduate students. The event started a few years ago when the scoreboards in the gym needed replacing. Instead of traditional fundraising activities, the parents decided to hold an event that would bring together families, teachers and students while promoting physical activity.

As in the past, this year’s games turned the gym into a sort of Olympic stage where different games took turns as the feature presentation, with teachers playing against students. An announcer provided the running commentary on volleyball matches, relay races, scooter basketball and other traditional and non-traditional games alike. Admission fees were charged for the event and this money helps raise the funds necessary to continue to promote healthy physical activity at Smith Middle.

Local food played a part too! Graduate students made pizzas with local sausage from ECO farm as well as a steamed cabbage slaw from Lyon Farms and helped dole out food to a long line of hungry students once the games finished. (They served an impressive amount of people quickly – 140 people in fifteen minutes!) The kids loved the meal with many braving veggie topped pizzas and the cabbage slaw. We hope that families were inspired to seek out these farms in the future to enjoy similar kinds of locally grown and raised products in their own households.

It was a fun event to be a part of, and with memories of how hard the pre-teen years can be (in Tokyo, Chapel Hill or elsewhere), it was especially great to see the kids just letting loose and having a good time. Many thanks to May May Leung for leading the volunteers and Smith Middle’s cafeteria staff for allowing us to come in to prepare food for the games! Follow this link to read about the event in The Chapel Hill News. Posted by Anna.

Ovens inside the Cafeteria

UNC graduate students, Lucia Leone and May May Leung, help get pizzas ready in the kitchen.

The meal finished with students sampling healthy desserts that were rated in a contest. Here, a delectable looking fruit pizza.

what do you do for a living? An overview of the project
December 31, 2009, 2:58 pm
Filed under: Education, Health, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’ve heard that in England, a question that is almost always asked when you first meet someone is “Where did you go to university?” It allows people to put new introductions into context. Here in the US, I think most people would agree that our version of this question is “What do you do for a living?” For some, it’s an easy answer: teacher, doctor, waitress, lawyer, construction worker, hairstylist, student, the list goes on. For others, like me, it’s a bit more complicated. There is no way to describe my work without explaining The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project. And there is no way to describe all that this project entails without going into a rather long monologue in which, depending on whom you’re talking to, the person’s eyes may just glaze over after a while. Other times,  I find myself in amazing conversations with fellow local food enthusiasts who are happy to share their thoughts about sustainable agriculture and offer up questions about the project.

Recently, I’ve been going to a lot of holiday parties. During this time, I’ve also been conducting interviews for this project. I’ve found that in both settings, a lot of people don’t have time to get into a lengthy overview of the Gillings project but would like to learn more about it when they have some time. We are now at the mid-point of the project, just having completed the first of a two-year funding timeframe.  So as we celebrate this halfway mile marker, I’ve written a summary of the major aims that will be helpful for anyone who wants to learn more about the scope of the project. If you want to know  about a specific aim, click on it and you’ll be directed to a bulleted list of what that aim entails; its goals, the research that is currently being done and the research that we plan to conduct as we go into the New Year. The bulleted lists are in no way meant to cover all that the aim involves, but serve as a short overview of what the aim covers.

Aim 1: Case Studies and Documentary Class – How are communities using local food production systems and innovative food distribution networks to create positive community economic development outcomes that can be replicated elsewhere?

Aim 2: Environmental Impacts – How do the environmental impacts of large-scale industrialized farming compare to local, sustainable farming systems?

Aim 3: Nutritional and Health Benefits – Does buying locally increase people’s intake of fruits and vegetables? How do garden curricula in schools affect the way children eat and think about food?

Aim 4: Economic Analysis – Analysis of local food sales through farmers markets and development of a geolocator tool for sitting markets.

Aim 5: Policy Analysis – Conduct an analysis to determine the best approach to presenting and disseminating agriculture and food systems impact assessment data to maximize the potential for policy influence.

I hope this summary of the major aims of The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project is helpful. I know it’s a lot to pack into one project, but as research that is truly integrating a number of academic fields, issues and collective solutions, the project covers a lot of ground. I’ll be sure to continue to use the blog to update you on our process and findings as we head into the second year of funding. Happy New Year!