June 02, 2008
Would people and their communities be healthier if they still got food from local farms? A team of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers has received a grant to study the public health impact of moving toward a local, sustainable food system. The team will establish a Gillings Innovation Laboratory (GIL) through the UNC School of Public Health. The project will be the eighth laboratory established through a generous gift to the School by Dennis and Joan Gillings.Results of this two-year study will improve understanding of the health, environmental and economic issues associated with this growing national trend. Although the research will be done in North Carolina, it will have national and international relevance.

Dr. Alice Ammerman

Dr. Alice Ammerman

“Among the most pressing public health problems in the U.S. today are obesity, environmental degradation, and health disparities,” said Alice Ammerman, DrPH, UNC School of Public Health professor of nutrition and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “Contributing in a big way to each of these problems is our current food system, with its heavy dependence on fossil fuels (fertilizers, pesticides, and gasoline) for large-scale production and long-distance transport of often high-calorie, nutrient-poor food, from farm to processing facility to table,” Ammerman said.

“The result is not only damaging to our health and the environment but also devastating to the economic base of rural communities.”

The loss of farmland and livelihood is particularly alarming among small to mid-scale and minority farmers who are transitioning away from growing tobacco, she said. The rural communities in which these farmers live also are facing manufacturing layoffs and plant closures – another blow to the local economy.

In addition to faculty from the School of Public Health and the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Ammerman’s interdisciplinary team includes many other University of North Carolina departments, centers, and schools: the departments of health policy and administration and environmental sciences and engineering in the School of Public Health; the departments of anthropology and city and regional planning in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Schools of Medicine and Government, the Renaissance Computing Institute, the Center for Sustainable Community Design,and the Office of Economic and Business Development.

“We are also working very closely with N.C. State University and N.C. A&T faculty, particularly the Center for Environmental Farm Systems; with the Documentary Studies Department at Duke; and with collaborators from several organizations supporting the efforts of local farmers and addressing environmental concerns (Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program, Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA, Orange County Economic Development, Commission and the N.C. Office of Environmental Defense).”

Also involved is the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Public Health, the Wayne County Community Food Systems Initiative and the Center for Integrating Research and Action, with regional partners in the southeastern, northeastern and Appalachian regions.

This large collaborative team will be gathering health, environmental and economic data within North Carolina that will guide policy decisions related to local, sustainable food systems and inform future research efforts.

“We will use case studies and documentary photography to explore the agricultural transition in North Carolina as tobacco becomes less economically viable,” Ammerman said. “We’ll pursue research opportunities addressing environmental benefits of transitioning to sustainable farming practices, determine whether there are nutritional and health benefits, and conduct an economic analysis of opportunities and barriers to local food systems. We will use these data to develop and test an innovative tool to identify market opportunities for farmers and conduct a policy analysis related to local food systems and sustainable agriculture.”

As a supplement to this Gillings Innovation Lab, UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity has funded Ammerman’s team to conduct an economic and policy analysis specific to the loss of black-owned farmland. This information will be used by GIL team members to explore economic opportunities that will allow farmers to maintain land ownership and farm productivity given increasing consumer demand for locally grown food.

The GILs were established in 2007. Each innovation lab will engage in one or more of these areas: high-impact research, demonstration projects and teaching practices which anticipate future public health challenges and accelerate sustainable solutions in North Carolina and around the world.

For more information on Gillings Innovation Laboratories, see: www.sph.unc.edu/accelerate.


School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu.



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