The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

Carolina Campus Community Garden in the News & Observer!
August 3, 2010, 8:52 pm
Filed under: Health, Media | Tags: ,

Check out this great article in The News and Observer about The Carolina Campus Community Garden. It’s inspirational to see the work that they are doing in providing free healthy, fresh produce to some of the UNC workforce.


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 Though there are many lists of farmers markets out there, much of the information is either outdated or missing the new markets that are in their first or second season.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,


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,


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.