The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

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.

Harvest of Hope Comes to the Table

For the past eight months, Dr. Molly De Marco, Project Director and Research Fellow at The Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, has led Harvest of Hope, a community based participatory research project exploring the impacts of a church garden on food knowledge, health and diet. To read more about the project itself, read this past blog when we had just started collecting baseline data.

Below, Dr. De Marco updates us on the RAFI Come to the Table Conference she and the Harvest of Hope project participants attended.

On the last Saturday in February, 14 Harvest of Hope participants (4 adults including our Community Director, Rev. Bill Kearney and 10 youth) met our research assistant, Meredith Robbins, and myself in Kenansville, NC for RAFI’s biannual ‘Come to the Table’ Conference.  We first heard Dr. Norman Wirzba, Duke Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life discuss food and faith. Dr. Wirzba highlighted the creation story in the Book of Genesis Chapter II. In this text, God is likened to a Gardener who formed us from the dust of the earth. Wirzba went on to talk about our relationship to food saying “Eating is not just about getting fuel, but a way we can commune with each other and the land and God as the life within all of that life.” He went on to say that “Eating can become a sacramental act. Food isn’t a commodity, but something to be cherished.” Read more about Dr. Norman Wirzba and his message here.

Our Harvest of Hope team then went to tour the Eastern Carolina Food Ventures Community Kitchen Incubator in Warsaw, NC, a partnership between Duplin County and James Sprunt Community College. The adults had lots of questions about what can be produced, how bottling is done, and the cost to use the space. The youth were most excited to see how long they could last in the walk-in freezers and coolers

Youth Harvest of Hope Participants

youth see how long they can stay in the walk-in freezer

Last, we traveled from Duplin County to rural Lenoir County (close to Snow Hill, NC) to assist with a garden workday with Mothers without Borders, a group of 17 farmworker families who are joining together to grow food so that they have enough food for the offseason (winter). Mothers without Borders is also working to market their produce to raise enough money so that their children do not have to work in the fields, but can go to school.  We met with adult and youth farmworkers.

Meeting with Farmworkers

Meeting with Farmworkers

Harvest of Hope youth were instructed by farmworker youth to turn the soil to make a large patch for potatoes, to plant seeds (shown in the photos below), and to prepare a bed of compost for the planting of lettuce. Our youth didn’t want to leave when it came time to go.

New Local foods venture for the Triangle Area
November 23, 2010, 2:09 am
Filed under: Food | Tags: ,
Pasture raised pig

a pasture raised pig checking out the grass

This fall, I started the Health Behavior and Health Education graduate program at the UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Going back to school has definitely been a transition, and with much of the work it has involved, this blog has been severely neglected! We are working to revitalize it these next coming months with postings around local food related research, news and events written by a variety of graduate students. But first, a post on the debut of a new and exciting local food business – Farmhand Foods.

According to information on their website –

“This new venture will connect North Carolina pasture-based livestock farmers with local food lovers, restaurants and retailers. The LLC  is an outgrowth of NC Choices, a Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) initiative. With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, CEFS launched NC Choices in 2003 to help grow market opportunities for the state’s pasture-based pork producers. Through its extensive work with farmers, chefs, retailers, slaughter facilities, and research, CEFS identified the need for a NC-based business to work directly with small-scale farmers and processors to help market and distribute pasture-based meat products. For the past two years, CEFS has incubated Farmhand Foods, supporting the business development process. This included NC Choices’ participation in several business development programs offered through UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.”

To me, what is particularly exciting about this venture is that it is a tangible and needed connection that came out of research. This is an indication that research does not have to always end with academic journal articles, but can create new opportunities that will help producers and consumers alike.

Farmhand Foods has a full line of products as well as a sausage wagon that will be debuting at different areas within the Triangle. Their first debut occurred about a month ago at the new Fullsteam Brewery in Durham (which uses local ingredients to make their beer). With over five hundred people attending, people were excited to have a taste of the home-grown sausages and were in full support. Click here to see some of the photos of the delicious looking sausages they were selling. And make sure to check out their website, where they’ll be tweeting their wagon whereabouts!

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.

Harvest of Hope
The first garden workday for the Harvest of Hope project

The first garden workday for the Harvest of Hope project

One of my favorite things about research is that it allows you to be part of a world that’s quite different than your own. Like Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church in Warrenton, North Carolina, where Dr. Molly De Marco, a researcher at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, and a team of UNC researchers are conducting research about how gardening can influence food knowledge, health and diet. In collaboration with Rev. William Kearney, who leads The Coley Springs Baptist Church, and fifty parish members, the project will entail a 10-month gardening program. The group will build a garden on their church land and will take part in cooking classes using their garden harvests. With many of the older members already knowledgeable about growing food, gardening skills will be taught from within their community, especially to the less experienced youth.

The name of the project is “Harvest of Hope” and it’s another project that I’m happy to be a part of. Last week we headed out to Warrenton to collect data before the parish broke ground to start the garden. As we pulled up to the church, Reverend Kearney gave us a warm welcome. In casual shorts and a baseball cap, he exuded energy and friendliness. He showed us around the sunny church, cheerfully decorated with flowers throughout and lined with photographs of their church members. Outside, the land was beautiful, with old oak trees towering amidst deep green fields. It was completely quiet, and as I walked up the hill to where the garden would be, the pastoral land surrounded me completely. The church owns fifty stunning acres of this land and Rev. Kearney told us how eager the parish was to start a garden on a part of it, “We’ve been talking about doing something with it for a long time, so everyone is very excited.”

Soon, the UNC Health on Wheels van showed up and started getting ready to take people’s weight, height and blood pressure. A traveling van that did such a thing? I never knew it existed! I had to take a peek inside to satiate my curiosity. One of the registered nurses with the van told me that they did this kind of thing all of the time, “It’s great…we get to go directly to the communities.”

The UNC Health on Wheels van!

The UNC Health on Wheels van!

Members of the parish started trickling into the church to fill out surveys on food knowledge and diet. Dr. DeMarco has worked with this community before, and as she checked people in, greeting them with hugs and updates on how she was, it was clear that she wasn’t a researcher in their eyes, but a friend who was part of the community. As more people came, the room filled up with people bent over their surveys, answering questions. A group of teenage boys shouted out identifications of vegetables, “Onion?” “No, I know, radish!” I worked with a man helping him answer questions about his diet. Outside, people lined up for the health van. Members of the parish will do all of this again in 10 months, and in this way we hope to explore if gardening has had an impact on their food knowledge, health and diet.

As I left the survey room to take a quick break, I paused outside of the church sanctuary to listen to the men’s evening choir practice. Their joyful voices filled the empty space, and some of them waved at me when they saw me watching. I mimicked applause and went back downstairs.

When the surveys finished up and we got ready to leave, I chatted with Rev. Kearney about the direction he is taking his church in. “People usually think of church happening on just one day, inside here. But we’re trying to do different things, go outside, have afterschool activities for kids like weightlifting, so it becomes a real community.” We look forward to the garden helping to build this community, and I hope I get a chance to see its bountiful harvest and the people who have grown it sometime soon.

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

TROSA Grocery store in Durham opens
May 14, 2010, 8:10 pm
Filed under: Food, Health, Media, Uncategorized

“It just seemed to me.. that [a store] would be something that people could rally around, be proud of, enjoy walking to if they need groceries and bring that community effort together where you have a true neighborhood”

-Excerpt from Herald Sun “TROSA Grocery Opens” article

If you haven’t seen it yet, I thought folks might be interested in reading this article, printed in The Herald Sun, about the new TROSA grocery store opening in a part of Durham which lacks access to stores that sell a wide variety of foods and other items. The store is located in a renovated 1930s building and their produce, milk and meat is all from North Carolina! The canned goods are made by workers from the nonprofit Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers. It seems like an amazing business venture that intersects community economic development, social work, public health and convenience! I look forward to visiting the store myself.

Have a good weekend,