May 08, 2009

Locally grown produce good for economy, environment, health

Alice Ammerman believes so strongly in the health and economic benefits of eating fresh produce grown by local farmers that she even served cabbage at a middle-school fundraiser.

“More and more, we’re trying to choose what’s available locally,” she says. “I bought a whole box of ‘pointed head’ cabbage from a local farmer, because that was what was available in February. And it’s really quite good! We cooked it in the school cafeteria — they have a big steamer, and we were able to cook all this cabbage in a matter of minutes. We added some diced sweet potatoes to give it a nice color mix. Even the cafeteria staff was interested. It was really educational all around.”

So did she succeed in getting the kids to eat cabbage?

“I have to say, the kids did not eat a whole lot of the cabbage,” she said with a rueful smile, “but the adults appreciated it, and the athletic director, who had always urged that we serve donated fast food at the fundraiser, was seen enjoying a large serving.”

The annual “healthy fundraiser” at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, N.C., is one way Ammerman and her nutrition students give back to the community. Through her research, she makes an impact on the health of North Carolinians every day.

“We call it community-engaged scholarship,” says Ammerman, nutrition professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of UNC’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “It works both ways. The people we work with learn something from us, and we learn quite a bit from them.”

One of the many projects in which she is involved is funded by a Gillings Innovation Lab grant. She has pulled together more than 30 collaborators — farmers, nutritionists and restaurant owners are included along with academic collaborators from UNC’s Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), N.C. State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and faculty from other departments at UNC, Duke and N.C. A&T universities. They are working together to understand the connection between local farming and public health — and its impact on the economy, environment and health of people in the community.

“The Gillings money is really helpful because it funds things that are more ‘out of the box’ than the average grant mechanism would fund,” Ammerman says. “We really have quite an eclectic grant here — we have something like 30 collaborators, ranging from farmers to the RENCI computer jocks. So when you take economics, combined with global warming, combined with nutritional intake — well, you would never be able to put those things together in one grant and get any one agency to fund it. [The funding] gives us a lot of opportunity to see how all these things fit together.”

For example, she says, the computer experts from RENCI are using geographic information systems (GIS) to help determine the best places to locate farmers’ markets to get a good return for the farmers and to give access to lower-income populations. When she got the “computer jocks” together with the farmers, she says, she had imagined that they would use mapping to show the impact of global warming.

“But when they heard the farmers talking about the fact that one of their challenges is where to locate a farmers’ market so they could get good access to customers and provide good access to people with lower incomes,” Ammerman says, “the RENCI guys got excited, because they could use data they have from other sources to map out strategies for finding the best place to locate a farmers’ market.”

Ammerman likes to find interdisciplinary approaches to issues like obesity and nutrition. For example, as part of a sustainable foods project, she and her team got children in a local middle school to participate in a program they called “Picture Me Healthy.” The children were asked to take pictures of things that would help them get healthy and things that get in the way of their being healthy.

One student, for example, took a photo of a banana and captioned it, “The banana looks pretty in this picture. If (people) look and see how pretty it is, they might want to eat a banana instead of a candy bar.”

Ammerman is quick to cite many examples of community-based participatory research throughout the School — including health behavior and health education professor Eugenia Eng’s Greensboro Cancer Care and Racial Equity Study, which is investigating complexities in the health care system to see why African-American patients receive different breast cancer care than white patients.

Another example is a study by research associate professor of maternal and child health Cathy Melvin, which involves partnering with community health agencies in High Point, N.C., to increase colon cancer screening among African-Americans and uninsured individuals. The project partners are promoting colorectal cancer screening through education and distribution of fecal immunochemical test kits, focusing primarily on under- and uninsured High Point residents.

Ammerman’s own work is focused mainly in North Carolina, but she also conducts research in several African countries, concentrating on food supplies and nutrition.

Her research focus – particularly on childhood obesity and its ties to nutrition and physical activity — has put her in great demand. Four years ago, she was appointed by then Lt. Gov. Bev Purdue to serve on the Childhood Obesity Study Committee, charged with recommending legislation to address the problem. She also is on the Governor’s Task Force for Healthy Carolinians.

She is the principal investigator of UNC’s Center of Excellence for Training and Research Translation, which identifies evidence-based interventions and policies for obesity cardiovascular disease prevention, then uses a web-based system for implementation in practice across the state and around the world.

Many research institutions are catching on to the benefits and importance of community-engaged scholarship, Ammerman says.

“We’ve been doing this kind of community-engagement research (at UNC) for a long time,” she says with a wink. “And now it’s cool….”

— Ramona DuBose

Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit