The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory


This spring, Nutrition 245 students Carolyn Tidwell and Katie Fesler have been getting involved in local food endeavors at their community placements. Currently, Tidwell volunteers at Carolina Campus Community Garden (CCCG) while Fesler volunteers at Farmer Foodshare. Each week, Tidwell, Fesler and their classmates reflect on their service and progress made at their community partners.

Tidwell stated, “Working with the Garden over the past couple of weeks has been wonderful. The more time I spend there, the more I love the distributions and gardening in general.” CCCG welcomes all UNC staff, faculty, students and community members to grow vegetable and fruit for UNC’s lower wage workers.

While Tidwell observes that the food distributions at the garden are a simple process and do not take long, she appreciates the opportunity it gives her to interact with the garden volunteers and UNC workers.

A volunteer at one distribution described how the workers will all bring food to meals and share amongst themselves, stated Tidwell. It appears to her that there is no sense of possession but instead a real sense of community that the CCCG has brought together.

“By the community garden providing this service to the UNC workers, it is sharing the abundance of the land and allowing them to lead a more healthy lifestyle through nutritious food products,” noted Tidwell.

Tidwell’s community placement at the CCCG has led to her examine the current food system more closely. She states she will continue ask questions focusing on food disparities while working at the Garden.

According to Fesler, she got right back into the groove of things at Farmer Foodshare after her weeklong spring break. Last week, Fesler met with her advisor and community placement group. They discussed the findings of their research focusing on price variation for products amongst different vendors including farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

Currently Fesler works on a project to help determine and expand “the ideal buyer” for the Pennies on the Pound (POP) Food Markets. This program is a pilot social enterprise developed by Farmer Foodshare. According to the nonprofit, it is designed to connect farmers with limited resources who have discounted excess food for sale with low wealth customer and agencies that increase community food security.

“I’m not entirely sure what the project is going to look like, but I’m taking it step by step and seeing where it leads me. It’s exciting to be a part of a venture that’s just getting off the ground,” stated Fesler.

Fesler and Tidwell, along with the rest of the Nutrition 245 class, will be volunteering at their community placements for the remaining five weeks of the semester – meaning much time left for even more service-learning opportunities. 


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.

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.

Back to middle school I go….

It had been a long time since I last found myself in a middle school, and as I pushed my way through the glass doors into Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill my pre-adolescent memories suddenly swirled back to me – the excitement and stress of dances, trying desperately to open my locker (I was always forgetting the combo), trapper keepers, middle school plays, basketball games, the list could go on and on. I went to middle school in Tokyo, but walking down the halls of this middle school here in the Triangle, I found it felt very similar to my own.

Though this trip down memory lane was nice, I was really here to help with the 3rd annual Cyclone Games – an event sponsored by the booster club and organized and supported by Dr. Alice Ammerman and several UNC graduate students. The event started a few years ago when the scoreboards in the gym needed replacing. Instead of traditional fundraising activities, the parents decided to hold an event that would bring together families, teachers and students while promoting physical activity.

As in the past, this year’s games turned the gym into a sort of Olympic stage where different games took turns as the feature presentation, with teachers playing against students. An announcer provided the running commentary on volleyball matches, relay races, scooter basketball and other traditional and non-traditional games alike. Admission fees were charged for the event and this money helps raise the funds necessary to continue to promote healthy physical activity at Smith Middle.

Local food played a part too! Graduate students made pizzas with local sausage from ECO farm as well as a steamed cabbage slaw from Lyon Farms and helped dole out food to a long line of hungry students once the games finished. (They served an impressive amount of people quickly – 140 people in fifteen minutes!) The kids loved the meal with many braving veggie topped pizzas and the cabbage slaw. We hope that families were inspired to seek out these farms in the future to enjoy similar kinds of locally grown and raised products in their own households.

It was a fun event to be a part of, and with memories of how hard the pre-teen years can be (in Tokyo, Chapel Hill or elsewhere), it was especially great to see the kids just letting loose and having a good time. Many thanks to May May Leung for leading the volunteers and Smith Middle’s cafeteria staff for allowing us to come in to prepare food for the games! Follow this link to read about the event in The Chapel Hill News. Posted by Anna.

Ovens inside the Cafeteria

UNC graduate students, Lucia Leone and May May Leung, help get pizzas ready in the kitchen.

The meal finished with students sampling healthy desserts that were rated in a contest. Here, a delectable looking fruit pizza.

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

Dr. Alice Ammerman on NC NOW Tonight

Principal Investigator of The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project, Dr. Alice Ammerman, will be on NC NOW airing tonight at 7:30 on WUNC. The story is part of a documentary series focused on environmental heroes produced and written by UNC Medical Journalism students. Tonight’s story focuses on local food and profiles Alex and Betsy Hitt, a local couple from Alamance County, who have been growing food using sustainable and organic methods since 1981. Click here to learn more about their farm.