The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory


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.



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.



Southeast Youth Food Activist Summit a Success

Sabrina López here again. As I mentioned in an earlier post, UNC-CH hosted the second annual Southeast Youth Food Activist Summit February 5-7th.

Out of the summit came an incredible amount of energy that students and youth will be bringing back to campuses and communities across the Southeast with a new resolve to strengthen and build the Southern Real Food Network.

A new generation of young people recognize that food system reform is necessary–and that access to fresh, healthy food is imperative. Anna Lappé, the Summit’s keynote speaker, explained that in championing food system reform, the opposing side will call us–the Good Food Movement– anti-science, anti-aid, and elitist. The term ‘elitist’ struck me most, perhaps because it is a word that I’m coming to terms with personally as I continue to learn and work in issues related to food and nutrition both at school and at home. When I speak with many of my friends in Carrboro, many mention that local food is more expensive, and that they would purchase more local produce if they had more disposable income to spend on locally sourced food.

As Lappé pointed out at the SYFAS Summit, “what is more elitist than a food system that can only provide fresh healthy food for those that can afford it?” Last fall, The Carrboro Farmers Market teamed up with HPDP and applied for grant funding to implement an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) Service so that customers can apply SNAP benefits (former Food Stamps) while shopping for produce and goods. The Carrboro Farmers Market does not currently accept SNAP benefits, but it will soon begin to do so. With all due respect to local supermarkets, I would love to see my friends use their SNAP benefits at the Carrboro Farmers Market in the near future!
More details to come on the Carrboro Farmers’ Market EBT Program.


Community Food Security
January 25, 2010, 3:56 pm
Filed under: Food, Health, Media | Tags: , , , ,

Customers donating fresh foods at the Carrboro Farmers Market

Customers donating fresh foods at the Carrboro Farmers Market

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article that took a close look at how the recession has reshaped the job market.  For the most part, “reshaped” was used as a euphemism for jobs lost, with professions in construction, trade, transportation, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality all posting tremendous cutbacks. There were a few areas however, that posted an increase in jobs, even in this dire economy. And one of these areas had to do with food. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “community food and shelter” jobs are one of the top rapidly expanding job fields in the country.  Professions in this area provide crucial community food security at a time when many have lost their jobs and aren’t able to put food on the table. Community food jobs entail helping identify new sources of food and securing donations for the hungry. It’s hard to overlook the fact that the increase in these jobs portrays the alarming public need.  It’s going to take resourceful people and innovative solutions to make a difference.

According to the USDA’s annual report on food insecurity, 1 in 7 families in the United States experienced food insecurity in 2008. The situation demands more solutions – and an increase in people working to fight hunger is an important first step. Though more traditional programs like food can drives have a place in securing donations for the hungry, food security programs must challenge themselves to think creatively in order to help feed people in a healthy and sustainable way. Many are donating less now than before as they too are working on a tight budget.  Often times, the canned food that is donated is high in sodium and high-fructose corn syrup, and can contribute to diet-related diseases. Too many solutions, as Julie Guthman, Assoc. Professor at UC Santa Cruz wrote recently, reflect the limits of food charity when people in need get what others wouldn’t eat themselves – unhealthy and highly processed canned food. Or, as Gutham writes, “the dregs.”

In our community here in the Triangle, there are a number of programs that take creative approaches to securing healthy food for people in need. At the Carrboro Farmers Market for instance, 4,364 pounds of fresh food were donated by farmers and customers alike from late May through the end of 2009 through a program called The Farmer FoodShare.  This program cooperates with other local groups like the Inter-Faith Council for Social Services’ FoodFirst initiative and Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. According to Margaret Gifford, FoodShare founder and organizer, they hope to continue to grow this FoodShare program at the Carrboro Market and expand to other interested markets. She stresses that partnering with others working to create food safety nets is essential, “We value the cooperative nature of our local community and find that by focusing on getting the best fresh fruits and vegetables we can for people in food insecure households means that we can make a greater impact in people’s lives and on their overall health.”

Boxes of fresh donated produce

Boxes of fresh donated produce

In this immediate community, we also have non-profit organizations like TABLE, which runs a program where backpacks filled with food are delivered to children at their school to take home over the weekend.

The economic situation spurred a new project at UNC this year to assist its employees hit hard by the budget crisis – a cooperative garden. Fresh fruits and vegetables will be grown for the schools’ faculty, students and staff. The garden came out of a discussion in which UNC staff (custodians, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers, and others) expressed concerns about some people not being able to afford fresh, healthy food. The garden project is being led by volunteer, Claire Lorch, and she welcomes more people to get involved and join the organizing committee. The programming for the garden is being finalized and will likely offer a combination of individual garden plots as well as a cooperative growing area that will allow UNC employees to exchange work (planting, weeding, watering, etc) for foods grown.  The vision of the garden is that it will do more than just provide fresh produce – it hopes to serve as a place where faculty, students and staff can connect with each other.

These few examples described above are just some of the innovative ways people are working, in both paid and volunteer capacities, to address hunger issues in our community. If you’re interested in learning more about these programs or in volunteering, please follow the links. It’s sometimes easy for me to get caught up in the day to day activities of local food system research, but it’s important to remind myself that there are folks living nearby that don’t have enough money to buy food for dinner, no matter where that food is coming from.

Donated non-perishable items

Donated non-perishable items