December 7, 2015
The paradoxes are many. About one-third of available food in the U.S. is wasted, yet millions go hungry. Even in North Carolina, where a long growing season produces an abundance of fruits and vegetables, many have too little nutritious food to eat. Especially during holidays, we think of food as binding families and communities together – but access to healthful foods also divides us along racial and socio-economic lines.
Leaders at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill don’t shy away from challenges such as these. With the launch of UNC’s two-year, campus- wide academic theme, “Food for All: Local and Global Perspectives,” UNC students and members of the faculty and staff aim to transform the food landscape.
Co-chairs of the theme committee are Marcie Cohen Ferris, PhD, professor of American studies, and Alice Ammerman, DrPH, professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School for Global Public Health and director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
Ammerman says UNC’s focus on food is – pardon the pun – organic to the campus. “We don’t see this as something that we’re imposing on anyone,” she says. “Rather, it’s people on campus becoming inspired by the theme and each other’s work in the areas of food – and their crossing disciplines to work side-by-side with communities.”
Ammerman says the food theme is relevant to all 70 majors offered on campus. “The whole campus seems to be integrating the theme,” she says, “and it’s making for really interesting connections.”
If the myriad projects generated in response to the theme are any indication, Ammerman is right. UNC radiologists are helping a nutrition researcher use MRIs to learn how consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages affects the brain. Biologists are conducting research about the genetics of seafood and the pervasive problem of fish being mislabeled and sold under false pretenses. Historians marked the 100th anniversary of World War I by studying the victory gardens planted to increase food production during wartime – and noted their resurgence in popularity in the 21st century.
Campus discussions about food have inspired students to act locally. One campus group plans to transform ornamental planters located atop the Rosemary Street parking deck into gardens to help low-income youth in Chapel Hill experience gardening and learn about food production. One student was awarded a social venture grant to help people start home gardens.
“I’m so excited about the social entrepreneurship that’s happening around this theme,” says Ammerman. “These projects are about sustainability, social justice and solving real-world problems.”
Even as Ammerman fields inquiries from the Carolina community about food-related projects, she also is pursuing her own “Food for All” project. Along with several colleagues, she aims to bring together representatives from big agriculture and small farms to find common ground around issues of sustainability and access to high-quality food. “These two groups have been in different camps for too long, and we believe there’s some middle ground,” she says.
The food theme is grounded in five initiatives – UNC’s role as a food systems innovator; teaching and learning about food; the contribution of food to health promotion and disease prevention; food access and food justice; and the documentation of food cultures and history.
The two-year theme was announced last April, so there are many more projects yet to come. “We can barely keep up with all the inquiries, ideas and suggestions from our students, faculty and staff,” Ammerman says. “I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.”
– Amy Strong
“Food for All” is UNC’s second two-year, cross-campus theme. The first, in academic years 2012-2014, focused on “Water in our World,” and was co-led by Jamie Bartram, PhD, Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering and director of The Water Institute at UNC.
More than 275 students in UNC’s social entrepreneurship minor degree program, which now includes a public health concentration, are focused on food theme projects.
To learn more about projects and events associated with the 2015-2017 “Food for All” theme, visit foodforall.web.unc.edu.
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 sph.unc.edu/cph.