The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

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.

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.

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.

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,


Tar Heel Guide to Restaurants and Caterers Using Local Food
Behind the Line at Acme

Behind the line at Acme

My past work as a server in restaurants undoubtedly led me to my food interests. I enjoyed playing a part in someone’s special night out, providing good service and delicious food. I liked thinking about the daily process of cooking too, with the chefs starting the morning off baking bread and simmering homemade chicken stock, and progressing into the afternoon working to piece together other elements of the menu. I remember once stopping by around midday and noticing all that was happening – short ribs braising in their own juices, sauces being whisked together from scratch, fresh fish marinating in citrus and butter being spun until it was that lovely velvety texture. And it was only noon. By the time I would walk in to get ready for service, fresh herbs were being chopped and sauces tasted for salt and pepper.

Right before we began a reservation-booked Friday night, I got a strange pleasure out of thinking about all the restaurants down the east coast, getting ready for a busy night of service. Of course there was almost always some part of the night that was a little crazy, with the line cooks feverishly glancing up at the long and ever growing list of tickets while the expo person grabbed plated dishes and finished them with sauces while bellowing out table numbers for the steaming plates to be taken to waiting patrons. Working in restaurants is hard; anyone that has done it knows. You learn a lot about food too – my vocabulary expanded to include beurre blanc sauce, veal cheek, shad roe and ramps.

So when I was told about a project to create a guide featuring restaurants and caterers that used local foods as an offshoot of my work on the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project, I was perfectly pleased. I felt as if my two worlds were colliding!

The project was identified as a priority by the five deans of the health affairs of UNC. The idea was to help people related to the university work with local businesses who have taken a pledge to support local farmers and buy as much local product as possible. The most difficult part was creating the pledge – we wanted it to properly represent those restaurants who prioritize buying local product above most all other purchasing initiatives.

We floated our initial ideas by Sheila Neal of Neal’s Deli and Kevin Callaghan of Acme Food and Beverage for their feedback.  Both are owners of businesses that offer local farm products on their menus throughout the year.  Sheila and Kevin provided helpful insight into the challenges a restauranteur faces when trying to buy local product in reliable quantities in all four seasons.  Even though it can be difficult, especially in winter, they both felt it was important to do their best in order to offer the freshest product available to their customers and to support area farmers.  We asked farmers for their feedback too and learned about the relationships they have with restaurants in the four counties that our guide includes.  As a result of these conversations, we expanded the guide to include information about local foods initiatives, farmers markets and consumer-supported agriculture subscriptions.

The Guide was officially released March 1 in conjunction with the Fresh Air Fresh Ideas presentation organized by the Gillings School of Global Public Health and celebrating two of the first Gillings Innovation Labs, of which the Sustainable Agriculture Project is one. We hope it will encourage UNC faculty, students and staff to consider these businesses first when thinking about their dining and catering needs.

Take a look at it here and distribute widely! Special thanks to Regina McCoy, Director of Art Services at CHAI, who did a beautiful job with the graphic layout, photography and listings.



Two links to Gillings!

The Daily Tarheel had a great article this morning on Alice Ammerman and her efforts for food reform through her sustainable ag work.

Also, I recently guest posted about the project on one of my all time favorite local blogs – Sustainable Grub. Thanks to Dee Reid (Sustainable Grub creator) for the opportunity.