The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

NC Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council has first meeting!
The audience packed in for the Council's first meeting

The audience packed in for the Council's first meeting

Last Tuesday, the newly established North Carolina Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council held its first meeting. There are twenty-six seats on the statewide council, twenty-four of these appointees were able to attend the long awaited inaugural meeting held in front of a packed audience with standing room only.

The concept of creating a statewide council was identified as a priority during the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) Farm-to-Fork Initiative, “Building a Local Food Economy in North Carolina.”  Many constituent groups worked cooperatively with legislators to draft the proposed legislation that ultimately resulted in the establishment of this council during the most recent legislative session.

The meeting was open to the public (as all subsequent meetings will be) and it was incredible to see the amount of interest and support for the council. The meeting began with each of the council members providing a short introduction and a summary of their work and interest in local food.  State government was represented with the Commissioner of Agriculture (Steve Troxler), the State Health Director (Dr. Jeferey Engel) and Secretary of Commerce (Keith Crisco) There were farmers from a more conventional agriculture background, like Tommy Porter of Porter Farms, who raises chickens under a contract with Tyson, along with farmers who raise animals using alternative methods, such as Jamie Ager from Hickory Nut Gap Farm who raises pastured chickens. A butcher/brewer/sausage maker, Uli Bennewitz, holds a seat as well.  Leaders from the commercial fishing industry, the NC Farm Bureau Federation, Child Nutrition Services and NC Cooperative Extension Services were also present. Roland McReynolds, Executive Director of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and Nancy Creamer, Co-Director of CEFS, hold seats on the council. There was a lawyer, Dania Davy from Land Loss Prevention Project and a medical doctor, Jeffrey Engel, the State Health Director. Our very own Principal Investigator of the Gillings project, Dr. Alice Ammerman, sits on the council as well. It was an amazingly diverse group of professionals. A quote from a recent piece by Tom Laskawy, blog writer for Grist, reflects on the positive aspects of diversity when establishing the make up of food policy councils,

Dr. Alice Ammerman introduces herself

Dr. Alice Ammerman introduces herself

“By their nature, food policy councils are designed to circumvent the parochial interests and often ‘captured’ status of regulatory agencies. By making people who don’t normally talk sit together and consider the broader impact of their policies, food policy councils have the potential to keep special interests from dominating policy debates.”

After introductions of members, Richard Reich, Assistant Commissioner for Agricultural Services, provided a summary of the history of food policy councils. Though many food policy councils have been initiated since the first one was established 28 years ago in 1982 in Knoxville, Tennessee, not all have succeeded. In fact, a previous food policy council existed in North Carolina from 2001 to 2003 and met with a less than desirable ending. Reich urged members to take their jobs seriously and “to maintain balance and credibility.” John Volmer, a leader in practicing sustainable growing methods in North Carolina and owner of Volmer Farm, spoke next. Commenting on the palpable energy in the room he started, “I was going to give you a pep talk but I don’t think you need one. I can feel the pep already!” Despite this, Volmer gave an inspiring “pep” talk on the possibilities of local food systems, using Vermont as an example of a state that has built a strong local food shed, even with a much shorter growing season than North Carolina.

Once the initial introductions were done and opening speeches were given, council member Mr. Billy Ray Hall, Representative of the NC Rural Economic Development Center, nominated Commissioner Troxler as Chair of the Council with Crisco seconding. Troxler accepted the nomination and when asked how he would be represent such a diverse membership through an individual leadership, he told council members that he considered the chair a unifying force, one that would ensure support and seek out input from everybody. He was unanimously voted in and shortly thereafter, he requested that a motion be accepted to vote in a Vice Chair to help him create structure within the council to ensure diverse leadership. Sustainable crop and animal producer, Mary James, nominated Nancy Creamer as Vice Chair.  The nomination was quickly seconded and Nancy was unanimously voted in.

It was an exciting day for agriculture in North Carolina – the first meeting of the council demonstrated true recognition of local and sustainable food on the state level. The council now has much important work ahead of them and must take significant steps towards advising state government on ways to build upon and strengthen North Carolina’s local food system. The council will meet no less than four times a year and, according to statute will have an annual report due with their recommendations on October 1st. To see a full list of council members and learn more about the council, follow this link.

Council Members

Council Members

Documentary Studies Course was inspirational
December 16, 2009, 4:16 pm
Filed under: Education, Politics, Sustainable Agriculture | Tags: ,

Charlie Thompson, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University

Hello Folks — I know Anna usually posts to the blog but I was particularly excited today to read some of the wonderful comments that students provided at the end of the semester about Charlie Thompson’s Documentary Studies Class at Duke University (See October 7 post, “Politics of Food,” by Anna): some of them not only praised Charlie as an inspirational person but Anna as well.  I received permission from one particular student to publish the praise that she wrote about the class.

Hi Dr. Thompson,

I just wanted to thank you once again for your class. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to meet with me at the beginning of the semester, and also your continued interest in how I was feeling in the class. I appreciate and value being exposed to all of these issues about which I would have remained ignorant had it not been for your class and the guest speakers. Also, the final project that Angela and I did about SEEDS was truly inspiring. Coming into this class, I never would have imagined that I would be so interested in these issues, but it was moving to see these people working against the issues that had been brought up in your class. Working with Angela, as she was previously passionate about sustainability and food justice, taught me a lot as well. Unlike a lot of classes I’ve taken at Duke, yours has given me a new breadth of knowledge and awareness that I can take out of the classroom and apply.

Thank you again, and I hope you have a great holiday.


Lynn ElHarake

p.s. Anna is an amazing TA. She was always available for questions and valuable input throughout the semester 🙂

Those of us working on the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project are so pleased to hear things like Lynn had to say.  According to Anna and Charlie the class had 22 undergraduates from Duke, 1 undergrad from UNC, 1 law school student from Duke, and 5 graduate students from UNC (from schools/departments of public health, journalism and folk lore). Because of this tremendous success we are looking for funding in order to be able to sustain the course over time and, if Charlie’s willing and able, to provide it regularly.  Thank you Charlie!  Thank you Anna.


Will Allen, Sustainable Agriculture Leader, Coming to North Carolina!

Will Allen, courtesy of The New York Times

Critics of eat local movements typically point to one theme – the often high cost of buying fresh fruits and vegetables and the difficult task of stretching food budgets to find ways to afford local food. At the same time one can buy a McDonalds’ burger for a dollar, a head of lettuce grown in nearby soil may cost over twice as much.  This means that financially struggling families often have little choice about how to keep from going hungry: McDonalds is often the least expensive, and perhaps easiest option for people who feel they can’t afford to spend much money on their diet. This point is emphasized by Triangle local Tom Philpott, food editor of Grist Magazine who says, “If there’s no place in the food movement for low- and middle-income people of all races, we’ve got big problems, because the critics will be proven right — that this is a consumption club for people who’ve traveled to Europe and tasted fine food.”

In order to eat more fruits and vegetables without breaking the bank, some people have learned that they can’t just rely on their grocery stores and farmers markets for food anymore and have begun to grow their own in order to get healthier fresh food in their meals. Gardeners around the country are working in their communities, schools and in their personal gardens and are attempting to break the economic barriers of buying healthy food while getting people to rethink the idea that eating locally is only for the upper class.

This coming month, those of us in North Carolina can have the pleasure of hearing from one of the most creative leaders of the movement to improve access to healthy food — Will Allen, the 2009 recipient of the MacArthur Genius award will be visiting Raleigh later this month and speaking at the McKimmon Center . Allen started a two-acre urban garden called Growing Power Farm in downtown Milwaukee, a city with an abundance of cheap, fast food and little options for fresh produce. Frustrated with these limited choices, Allen took initiative to start a community garden and engage those people living in the area to get involved learning about growing their own produce and enjoying the delicious results of their labor.  Allen will be speaking next Monday evening, Nov. 9th, as the 2009 Center for Environment Farm Systems (CEFS) Sustainable Agriculture Leader. Click here to link to The New York Times article to learn more about Will Allen and his work and click here to learn location and time details.

We encourage you to attend the event and bring a friend! Allen’s beliefs and work are vital in expanding the local food movement to include all people, regardless or race and income.

The Politics of Food
October 7, 2009, 10:15 pm
Filed under: Education, Food, Politics, Sustainable Agriculture | Tags: , ,

If you’ve read any of these blog posts, you’ll know that there is a lot packed into The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project. Of course, I’m new to research, but it’s still incredible to me that one project focused on local food is connecting economics, health, the environment, public policy, and community development. And now the project has taken it one step further by bridging the gap between historically rival schools – UNC and Duke University, through a class entitled “The Politics of Food.” This class is offered to both UNC and Duke students, who actually sit in a room together and have meaningful and productive discussions surrounding issues related to food systems.  This class became a key element of this Gillings research project when Dr. Ammerman defined how much there was to be learned from the issues the project is studying and how much students’ work could contribute to the project itself.

The Politics of Food course is being offered this fall and is taught by Dr. Charlie Thompson, Education and Curriculum Director of The Center for Documentary Studies, an interdisciplinary educational organization affiliated with Duke. I am assisting Dr. Thompson with administration of the course and have the opportunity to join in the class each week.  Though the class is located on the Duke campus, Tarheel fans make the trip over to The Center each Thursday. The class focuses on discussion of various readings and talks from different guest speakers, including growers, advocates for farm worker’s rights, researchers from this project, leaders in the North Carolina food movement, urban gardeners, union organizers, educators on the affects of pesticides and others. While in the class, students contribute to The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project by researching various organizations in North Carolina that are working for justice and change within the food system and beyond. Students have been asked to document their work, through essay, film or photography. Dr. Thompson makes clear to students that their work is not only for a letter grade. “Do your research and writing especially well,” the syllabus says, “because it will have a life beyond this course.”

A recent speaker to the class was Mr. Gary Grant, executive director of his community organization – The Concerned Citizens of Tillery. His parents began farming in the Tillery Resettlement Community in 1947. According to the National Organization to Save the Grant Family Farm over the next five decades, “officials in local USDA offices discrimaned against black farmers by delaying delivery of loans, requiring excessive collateral, and intimidating black borrowers.” Now the Grant family farm is threated with foreclosure. Mr. Grant spoke with an anger that was deepened by sadness, “My family would put in a loan and wait three, four, five months before we heard anything back. Meanwhile, white farmers just walked in and out of the office with their loans secured.”  Indeed in 1999, Judge Paul Friedman signed a consent decree that effectively settled a long and bitter class action lawsuit against the USDA by black farmers alleging discriminatory lending practices. The lawsuit awarded damages to thousands of African-American farmers. Unfortunately, Mr. Grant told the class, obtaining actual recompense for the economic penalties they suffered has been difficult.

Dr. Thompson, who is also a writer and filmmaker, showed the class a film he produced entitled “We Shall Not be Moved,” which portrays the history of the Tillery citizens from their days of slavery, to sharecroppers, to landowners, and through the challenges they face today. ”  Mr. Grant also talked about the school he used to teach at before it was closed down by the state due to budget cuts. Now children in his community have to travel by bus for over an hour to get to school each day. Families with young children don’t want to stay in Tillery, and he fears his community, once a vibrant place, will collapse.

Mr. Grant was a wonderful speaker, an impassioned man who an audience will not soon forget. His story is also a clear example of the political issues embedded in our food system. As I drove back to Chapel Hill that day, I thought about how progressive The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project is and how lucky I feel to be a part of it. This project doesn’t just stop at finding answers, but includes educating people about the complexities of what we eat and how it affects so much more than just our bodies. With knowledge, people can begin to decide how they would like to make a difference in our current food system. It can start as simply as buying an apple from a local farmer instead of one that was shipped from thousands of miles a way. Quoting from Dr. Thompson, “We are what we eat, but we are also what we do with the energy from what we eat.”

Gary Grant

Gary Grant

Michael Pollan on Health Care Reform and What We Eat
September 28, 2009, 4:39 pm
Filed under: Food, Health, Media, Politics | Tags: , ,


I recently read a study that estimates that one in three Americans will have Diabetes by 2050. Diabetes Type II will account for 90 to 95% of these cases; Type II is directly related to obesity and lack of physical activity. A healthy diet could prevent the onset of this disease while helping to decrease the enormous amount of health care costs that arise from it. And a healthier diet could consist partially of eating locally produced food. One aim of The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project is focusing on the connection of eating locally and an increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables – which of course are key to a healthy diet. But what does health care reform mean for what we eat? Take a look at this  interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times by Michael Pollan that looks at the connection between health care reform and the potential consequences within the food industry. He asserts that if health insurance companies are forced to cover everyone, regardless of their health, they will inevitably be inclined to take a more proactive approach to improve people’s health.

School Lunch – It’s time for a change!
July 22, 2009, 6:23 pm
Filed under: Education, Food, Health, Politics | Tags: , , , ,


I spend part of my time working with children in a beautiful garden at a local elementary school in the Triangle area. We try to involve the kids as much as we can in planting, weeding, and harvesting the food they grow. With all the hard work that goes into the garden, you’d think that eating the fruits of their labor would be the easiest part.

Not so.

One of our biggest challenges is using all the food we grow in the garden. Because of state regulations, we are unable to give any of our garden harvest to the school cafeteria to use to prepare meals. And even if we were allowed, many school cafeterias do not contain a kitchen equipped to cook fresh produce. Some of you may be scratching your heads at this point. School cafeterias without a kitchen? Can this be true? When I first learned of this I found it hard to believe, but apparently, many schools just warm up the food they receive from large food distribution systems before serving it to the children. I was very curious to learn more. If this was all the prep that was required, then just what were cafeterias serving?

After my recent trip to Wayne County (as part of the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project) to survey students at the CASTLES school garden program (the school that I wrote about last week), I was inspired to take an in depth look at the lunch menu at the school where I volunteer.  I examined the menu options for a single week in June to find the following foods listed: nachos with chili and cheese, beef-a-roni, pizza, country style steak with gravy, and corn-dog nuggets. Each of these is considered the main dish for the lunchtime meal. Children are then able to choose two of the following sides, which vary depending on the day: yogurt, corn nibblets, breadsticks, sherbet cup, pinto beans and winter mixed vegetables. (These winter vegetables were available in June no less!) As the school lunch program was explained to me, it seemed that kids would potentially be able to select a lunch without including any fruits or vegetables. I was also curious to find out where all of this food was coming from, much of it out of season and highly processed. Was this food being imported from long distances, did it have preservatives added to it, and were there hormones or antibiotics in any of the meat products?

Thinking of the long rows of lettuce we had going to seed in my school garden, it occurred to me that there is a strong disconnect between food grown in school gardens and the highly processed and out of season foods served in cafeterias. This is most likely confusing to children on a number of levels. They work very hard to grow fresh fruit and vegetables in their garden, but when it comes down to it, this food does not seem at all similar to the food they eat everyday in school.

The current Child Nutrition Act expires September 30, 2009, meaning it’s up for re-authorization. Many people around the country are rallying to get the food that our youngest citizens eat in schools changed. While this may or may not include making use of school gardens, it could include serving food that is similar to food grown in them. School food could include seasonal produce, so when the children begin harvesting the sweet potatoes in the garden they are eating sweet potatoes at lunchtime. Food could be sourced from local producers, farmers that grow produce and raise animals within a reasonable distance from the school. Kids could have access to meat that is free from hormones and chemical preservatives and is raised in a humane manner. What’s exciting is that a revised Child Nutrition Act could include changing some of the loopholes that allow children to eat junk food instead of real food. If truly revolutionary, the Act could include provisions for giving kids food that would allow them to see that healthy can be synonymous with delicious. This would allow programs such as CASTLES to start making connections between the food they are growing and the food that shows up in their cafeteria. This would establish school garden programs as a fully integrated part of school curriculum.

Relevant research projects, such as the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project in partnership with CASTLES, and grass-roots organizations like Slow Food USA’s “Time for Lunch” campaign, are spurring on debate and forcing people to recognize that change is needed for school lunch programs.

At the school garden I work with, we figured that time in the garden was going to have to include time spent eating since we couldn’t give food to the cafeteria to use. This past spring, we invited local chefs to come visit and cook with the kids using the garden ingredients as well as other yummy local goods. We made lettuce wraps with local ground pork, strawberries with homemade whip cream, caprese salad and a chilled squash soup all in the garden with very, and I mean very, limited cooking supplies. Sure some kids didn’t like it, but they all tried it, and most kids enjoyed it, many asking for second servings of their favorites. At the very least, they were all in agreement that the food was unlike anything they had eaten in school before.  Watching a girl dangle a dripping tomato with mozzarella above her mouth before she ate it in enjoyment, I realized that we need to have more faith in children’s tastes. We don’t need to fill it with preservatives and sugar for them to eat it. If given the choice, kids will eat real and healthy food. Now we need a more progressive Child Nutrition Act that will make school cafeterias into working kitchens with access to delicious local foods, ultimately leading to future generations making healthier choices lifelong.