The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

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.

The Dogdays of summer and a complete list of farmers markets in NC!
Farmers Market Display

Farmers Market Display

We are now well into the deep days of our southern summer, with sticky mornings that stretch into long scorching afternoons. Thank goodness the oppressive heat does more than make us perspire on these 90-degree plus days – it means we can enjoy a sheer abundance of local food grown by area farmers. Spilling over the tables at my local farmers market are baskets of peaches, fat tomatoes, stacked melons fragrant and warm from the fields, bags of basil, chunky squash, pearls of blueberries – there is so much to choose from.  What’s especially neat, is that this summer in North Carolina, more people are able to shop at farmers markets than ever before. New markets are sprouting up all over the state, some even in unconventional places like colleges and hospitals. I know this because I’ve been working to compile an updated list of farmers markets in North Carolina to help inform our work for the farmers market geolocator project. Though there are many lists of farmers markets out there, much of the information is either outdated or missing the new markets that are in their first or second season.

I’m conducting my search by county, so I figured my best bet would be to call Agricultural Cooperative Extension offices in each county to ask about farmers markets in their area. The agents who pick up the phone are always helpful, and provide me with the information or direct me to someone else that can. For this I thank them, as sometimes it can get to be a wild goose chase. (Before I started calling Extension agents, I wasted time spending half an hour trying to track down one market that I was tipped off about from a website, only to finally find out that it had disbanded six years ago!)

As North Carolina has 100 counties, there will be a lot of calls, and it’s a project I will chip away at bit by bit. But what I find amazing is that from 1936, each and every county, from Alamance to Yancey, has had their own Agricultural Cooperative Extension office. An amazing system and a huge resource for our farmers, NC Cooperative Extension was formally founded in 1914. It’s interesting to read about their history through World Wars I and II, The Civil Rights Movement and how their efforts and focus has changed through the years.

As I went to various counties’ Cooperative Extension web pages, I was excited to see the new, emerging effort for NC Extension – support of the local foods movement. Many of the Extension sites had posted information about the Buy 10% Local Campaign, an initiative that’s being led by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and that resulted from the priorities identified in the Farm to Fork State Action Plan. The intent of the 10% campaign is to encourage consumers to commit 10% of their existing food dollars to support local food producers. According to the 10% campaign website, “Cooperative Extension will designate regional directors and local food coordinators in all 100 counties to advance the 10% Campaign. These on-the-ground experts will be joined by other community leaders, farmers, businesses, parents, teachers and students, many of who are already working to build the state’s sustainable local food economy, from farm to fork.”

I applaud Cooperative Extension for taking on this initiative; agents are often already over stretched with work and underfunded so I thank them for being stewards for this extremely important state-wide pledge. This collaborative effort among all 100 counties demonstrates North Carolina’s unity to support our local farmers.   And you can participate too! Visit the 10% website and you can pledge to buy 10% of your food locally, either for yourself, your family or your business.

Be sure to keep reading this blog, as I’ll continue to chip away at my compilation of farmers markets and contact all 100 North Carolina counties to make sure that none are missed.  I look forward to sharing the entire list with you.

Weekend Food Happenings
Farm to Fork Picnic

Farm to Fork Picnic

You know you’re really passionate about your work when you spend most of your free time involved in it. Like this weekend – it was incredibly busy, full of food related events and to put it simply, a lot of fun.

It was kicked off with Anna Lappe’s reading at the relatively new Flyleaf Bookstore (a wonderful, independent bookstore in Chapel Hill) on Friday night. She was promoting her new book, A Diet for a Hot Planet which explores the effects of agriculture on climate change. Through her extensive research, her book shows that global industrial agriculture, specifically the use of hazardous chemicals, concentrated animal feeding operations, biotech crops, and processed foods, is impoverishing the land, destroying rain forests, polluting waterways, and emitting nearly a third of the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet.

Though climate change is depressing, Lappe stressed that her book is “a sandwich lined with hope smear.” People are already changing the food system through a grassroots movement, which can be seen in the increase of farmers markets, community gardens and CSA shares. With this hopeful new movement, Lappe said, climate change “is not a dead end issue, we can turn it around….nature is resilient.” The book also features several case studies on what large food companies are doing to “go green.” According to Lappe, they’re not doing much (McDonald’s big green initiative – including endangered species toys in their happy meals) and found that much of their green and sustainable talk was nothing but “spin.”

One member of the audience raised the issue of food prices: “If our industrial agricultural food system changed to center around smaller scale, organic farming, what would the cost be to the consumer?” Lappe’s answer to deal with this issue was to “flip the current system of subsidies on its head,” so “instead of subsidizing commodity crops such as corn and grain that end up feeding the cattle we eat, subsidize small scale, organic farming” to make this food more accessible to all consumers.

After an evening focused on sustainable food issues on Friday, I continued the theme the next day by promoting a consumer supported fishery project that I’ve been helping to launch at the Carrboro Farmers Market. Despite the cloudy weather, the market was bright, full of vivid purple, yellow and red blooms in the beautiful flower displays that lined nearly every table.  The ripe juicy red of strawberries didn’t hurt either.  And the produce wasn’t the only exciting part – I was happy to see the new SNAP program going well too – a positive step in helping food stamp recipients get access to fresh, healthy and local foods.

And yesterday, I volunteered at the kid’s tent at the Farm to Fork picnic. The event was held at Breeze Farm, which serves as an incubator for beginning farmers. The event raised $20,000 for the incubator program – which allows new farmers to grow food without having to own land themselves. A dynamite list of restaurants was paired with an equally striking list of farms and each pairing came up with their own dish.  After face painting and making crafts with the kids, I attempted to eat my way through the event, visiting more than 40 food stands.

Kids drew a picture of their favorite food - here, cheese!

Kids drew a picture of their favorite food - here, cheese!

The picnic was an amazing, celebratory event but I couldn’t help but think of that persistent question about price again. At sixty dollars a head for the event, only people who could afford it could attend. Of course, this was a fundraising event, but it would be neat to hold an event with local, delicious food that might be more available to people of a lesser income…perhaps my next project?

And to fill you in on the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project, we’re going to start surveying at the farmers markets once again. This time to research consumer behavior, which will explore why people shop at farmers markets. So if you’re headed to the Carrboro Market on Saturday, take a moment to stop and answer our quick survey questions. We look forward to hearing from you!  I’m sure it will be another weekend full of fun, food happenings.

A start of a rainbow!

Kevin Callaghan of Acme with the farmers of SEEDS

Kevin Callaghan of Acme with the farmers of SEEDS

Garden Happenings and Travels to Farmers Markets

It’s been a while now since I’ve posted to the blog, but there has been much going on that hasn’t involved my computer as of late.

First of all, the garden I manage at Lakewood Elementary School in Durham is in full bloom and for the past couple of weeks the kids and I have been harvesting the fresh veggies and cooking together.

Getting the collards chopped up

One of my proudest moments was when a group of fifth graders ate a whole pan of collard greens after telling me they absolutely did not like them in any way, shape or form.  They decidedly stated they were delicious and that they had changed their minds. The secret? (Jamie Oliver take note) Involving kids in the process of growing and cooking vegetables gives them a sense of ownership over their food, which I find helps them to enjoy eating previously thought scary vegetables.

A student sautes them with garlic

Secondly, I had the amazing opportunity to take a trip out west to both Los Angeles and Austin. The best part? Exploring both cities’ local food scene. Though I enjoy the seasonality of foods in our state, it was fun to visit the Hollywood Farmers Market in LA where everything seemed to be joyously in season at the same time. I meandered through 150 vendors selling mostly certified organic, beautiful displays of avocados, mushrooms, citrus, tomatoes, grapes and more. They had meat and seafood as well – my favorite was the farm-raised oysters that they sold on the half shell.

Happily looking at my oyster

Also of note was a Registered Dietician who is hired by the city to hand out healthy snacks she’s made with local ingredients along with the accompanied recipe.

Unlike our local and famed Carrboro Farmers Market, the market did not have any rules about the number of miles farmers were traveling to come sell. One woman involved with the market told me that most farmers come from surrounding counties in Southern California. Also a difference – the farmer was not required to be there to sell. Though the same person told me this was to be fair to the farmer, this way farmers could hit multiple markets in the same day by hiring others to sell for them, I am still grateful for this rule at the Carrboro market where you can be sure you’re talking to the grower when you’re buying your food.

The rules at the Austin Farmers Market (organized by an amazing non-profit, The Sustainable Food Center) seemed more like our own, with the producer required to be there to sell and a maximum number of miles allowed for travel to market. I found this sign about the Texas growing season interesting (sorry for the text cut off).

Sign at the Austin farmers market

They had a beautiful abundance of greens, eggs, meat, seafood and even locally made kombucha!

Both markets accepted EBT (food stamp) benefits, which I’m excited to hear that the Carrboro market will be doing starting May 1st! (Check back to read more…)

It’s nice to be home after my travels and yesterday I was reminded again of how wonderful our own local foodshed is with a feature article in the New York Times. And then a whole weekend to tour our neighboring farms with the 15th annual Piedmont Farm Tour! There’s certainly a lot going on and we’ll do our best to keep you updated on The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project as well as other related news and events as we head into this busy harvest season.

Southeast Youth Food Activist Summit a Success

Sabrina López here again. As I mentioned in an earlier post, UNC-CH hosted the second annual Southeast Youth Food Activist Summit February 5-7th.

Out of the summit came an incredible amount of energy that students and youth will be bringing back to campuses and communities across the Southeast with a new resolve to strengthen and build the Southern Real Food Network.

A new generation of young people recognize that food system reform is necessary–and that access to fresh, healthy food is imperative. Anna Lappé, the Summit’s keynote speaker, explained that in championing food system reform, the opposing side will call us–the Good Food Movement– anti-science, anti-aid, and elitist. The term ‘elitist’ struck me most, perhaps because it is a word that I’m coming to terms with personally as I continue to learn and work in issues related to food and nutrition both at school and at home. When I speak with many of my friends in Carrboro, many mention that local food is more expensive, and that they would purchase more local produce if they had more disposable income to spend on locally sourced food.

As Lappé pointed out at the SYFAS Summit, “what is more elitist than a food system that can only provide fresh healthy food for those that can afford it?” Last fall, The Carrboro Farmers Market teamed up with HPDP and applied for grant funding to implement an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) Service so that customers can apply SNAP benefits (former Food Stamps) while shopping for produce and goods. The Carrboro Farmers Market does not currently accept SNAP benefits, but it will soon begin to do so. With all due respect to local supermarkets, I would love to see my friends use their SNAP benefits at the Carrboro Farmers Market in the near future!
More details to come on the Carrboro Farmers’ Market EBT Program.

Geolocator Project
December 11, 2009, 4:45 pm
Filed under: Farmers Market | Tags: , ,

Researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and The Renaissance Computing Institute are developing a tool to help farmers’ markets select ideal site locations in order to reach target consumers.  Community members, farmers, economic development professionals, marketers, food access advocates, nutritionists and economists are all collaborating intensely to make this happen.

Using tools to select ideal site locations is not a new practice for many businesses. Major retail giants such as Walmart and Sears use tools like this, so do fast food restaurant like McDonalds and Burger King. Even convenience stores like BP and 7-eleven pick new location sites with these types of tools. Now farmers markets will have their very own sophisticated market analysis tool to make informed decisions about where to consider situating a new farmers market venture or to relocate an existing market.

The folks at UNC and RENCI have been working for a year on this specific aim of the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project to identify and catalog appropriate data sources to build this tool.  They are integrating consumer socio-economic demographics, traffic patterns, public transportation routes, sites of existing markets, consumer behavior trends, and hopefully (in the longer term) the locations and types of food producers and processing plants throughout North Carolina. All of this data will be integrated with metrics of success and failure of existing comparable farmers markets into a GIS-based mapping software tool.

Determining how to measure the success of a farmers market for the purposes of this tool has been one of the biggest challenges of this project.  For many, success is not simply the financial performance of a market, although for most it is clearly an indicator.  There are more complex reasons for starting a farmers market besides making it a profitable venue for farmers, and these include issues related to food access and reaching disadvantaged communities with fresh fruits and vegetables. For some the ideal is creating a market that is easily accessible to low income people, for others the ideal is to maximize gross sales potential for farmers.  Either way, if local food systems are to be viable, producers and communities will need guidance in how best to situate and design marketing options.  And no matter what the goals are when developing new farmers markets, the geolocator tool will be able to help balance all of these considerations.

The project is at its midpoint, with one year into development to create a prototype.  The hope is that at the completion point of the grant, November 2010, the tool will be at a beta stage for testing.  The next step would be to find funding to expand development of the tool to improve its’ widespread applicability and sophistication.  At that point, the tool will be able to be used by whomever is evaluating where to site a potential farmers market or where to relocate an existing market; farmers market organizations, town councils, city governments, economic development entities and food access professionals. Ultimately this geolocator will serve in a similar capacity as those sophisticated tools used by large corporations – to make an informed decision about site selection and choosing a location with the highest probability of success.

Contributed by Robin Crowder. For more information about this project please contact her at:

A very early sign of spring
December 2, 2009, 10:55 pm
Filed under: Farmers Market, Food, Sustainable Agriculture | Tags: , ,

We’ve had our first hard frost of the season. Holiday advertisements can be seen everywhere. Tables at my farmer’s market are piled high with root vegetables and greens. All signs point to the final departure from the lingering mild temperatures of our North Carolina fall and the inevitable transition into a steadfast winter. I’m the first to admit that I’m a wimp when it comes to cold. I keep telling myself that our winter temperatures surely aren’t as bad as more northern states, but I can’t help but long for those warm spring days that seem so far away as the weather demands heavy coats and the daylight gets shorter and shorter. But today, as I was compiling some information for a new Tarheel guide for the UNC Gillings School of Public Health that will feature local restaurants, farmer’s markets and other agricultural related enterprises (more on this project later), my heart warmed to a very early sign of spring. It’s time for CSA sign ups!

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs offer an opportunity to get affordable produce delivered regularly to your home, or to a convenient drop-off point in your neighborhood. Regardless of the CSA, prices are relatively inexpensive compared to buying retail, and you can choose to have delivery weekly, semi-weekly, monthly, or seasonally. Options depend on the program and some farms offer half shares in addition to full shares. A full share typically represents enough produce for a family of four for a week. Some farms offer add-on services: in addition to receiving produce, CSA participants can add on fresh flowers, honey, cheese or value added products like jams and jellies. CSA’s are most typically available during the main growing season from spring through early fall but some even continue through late fall and winter.  Sign ups start around this time of year. You can choose a CSA for a particular farm (or sometimes a few farms working together), where your delivery contains produce from those farms only. Your delivery “subscription” helps fund the farms’ operations for that period of time. Typically farms provide newsletters and recipes along with boxes of produce to help participants learn about agriculture and how to prepare the food each week. Often times CSA participants claim that they get much more produce than they could imagine and find themselves sharing the abundance with friends and family. It can be a great idea for a group of single people, such as students living near one another, to go in on a CSA subscription together.

I was impressed at the number of farms in our area that offer CSA subscriptions, while also happy to see that many farm websites advised folks to sign up early, as their subscriptions quickly sell out. Debbie Roos, NC Agricultural Extension Agent, has compiled a great list with farms in the Piedmont region that offer CSA’s along with their contact information. Click here to view.

As the days get shorter and the weather turns cold, consider an investment in a CSA subscription. It’s a great way to support a local farmer, increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet and, it may even warm you up a bit as you dream about a big, juicy, sun warmed tomato as we head into the December cold.