As awareness increases for the social, economic, and environmental impacts of food production and consumption, groups across Carolina are working to study and promote sustainable food options.

Carolina Dining Services

Student with food ContainerCommitted to providing healthy and flavorful food, Carolina is working to procure more of its food from local and organic producers. Working with student groups, contractors, and other campus departments, Carolina Dining Services (CDS) is proactively reducing its environmental footprint, expanding its purchases of locally produced food, and raising campus awareness of sustainable practices.

Serving an average of 13,000 meals per weekday during the school year, CDS spends $7 million annually on food and beverages. Sixteen percent of total purchases are from producers within a 250 mile radius. CDS reduces its carbon footprint through various initiatives, such as Meat “Less” Mondays, which feature more vegetarian and vegan options. CDS also utilizes the Monterrey Bay Seafood Watch standards as a guideline when purchasing seafood.

In partnership with the student organization Fair, Local, Organic Food (FLO), CDS and its contractor have invested considerable effort researching and seeking out local and sustainable food options. FLO Food worked with CDS to document the amount of “real food” purchased by CDS over the month of September 2015. Students receive course credit for tracking the local, community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and/or humane food served in the dining halls using the Real Food Calculator. During the period studied, CDS purchased 28% “real food,” establishing a baseline for future efforts. CDS also works with FLO to bring a campus farmers’ market to Polk Place each fall and spring semester.

Procuring sustainably produced meat at a competitive price is challenging. Local, grass-fed pork and beef sell at a considerable premium and are raised by small-scale producers who may not have access to the type of processing facilities required by large, safety-conscious contractors. Yet the health and environmental benefits of local, pasture-fed meat, and the enthusiasm of students, have resulted in exploratory purchases. Grass-fed beef hamburgers, for instance, are now available two days per week, once at Lenoir and once at the Rams Head Dining Hall. Made-to-order eggs from cage-free chickens are a breakfast option at both Lenoir and Rams Head.

The food sold by vendors on Lenoir Mainstreet is not included in the CDS purchasing totals, but 1.5.0, a restaurant committed to serving only the best locally-grown ingredients, is a great food choice for students looking for sustainable options. The Mediterranean Deli purchases all of its produce from local farms. Coffee shops operated by CDS on campus promote and serve Fair Trade Coffee. In spring 2013, CDS partnered with Firsthand Foods, a food vendor that acts as a conduit between local food vendors, restaurants, and retailers. CDS has also worked to offer more vegetarian and vegan options in dining halls and retail spots around campus.




“Eats 101,” also known as “What’s Dinner? Toward Understanding an Endangered Species,” is an interdisciplinary honors course that examines the many facets of food. Students explore cultural, social, economic, and environmental sustainability through the lens of historical and contemporary food practices. They learn about food production and consumption, marketing campaigns, the nutritional value of food, and its effect on the biochemistry of the body and on public health. The class cooks and shares meals together, with most of the food coming from within a 50-mile radius. Participants go on field trips to restaurants, farms, gardens, and farmers markets. Several students have been invited to present their research papers at an international conference in Oxford.

In addition to “Eats 101,” several other classes are available for students interested in the impact of food on the environment and sustainability. Classes such as “Agriculture and the Environment,” “Agriculture, Food, and Society,” and “Local, Sustainable Food Systems” help students to understand more about how the food we eat is produced and its effects on the environment. UNC also offers a Food Cultures cluster program, which provides suggestions for students who want to learn about food from various disciplines. The cluster program is designed to satisfy general education requirements while providing students with a more in-depth view of the topic of their choosing.

In spring 2009, a six-part Sustainable Food Systems Seminar alternated locations between UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. Sponsored by the Robertson Collaboration Fund and administered by the Institute for the Environment, the seminars featured one-hour panel presentations followed by receptions highlighting local food. The series examined food systems as a critical underpinning of stable and sustainable societies. Presenters included local sustainable food producers, vendors, and restaurants, and large food service directors and providers. One of the lectures focused on academic research, education, and outreach. The panelists were from Central Carolina Community College’s Sustainable Agriculture program; N.C. State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems; and Carolina’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

The classes of 2015 at both UNC and Duke read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals during the summer of 2011.  The book depicts the author’s personal connections to food interwoven with his quest to become a more informed consumer, specifically in relation to the factory-farming and slaughter of animals.


UNC Institute for the Environment


Student Working GardenIn the Gillings School of Public Health, “Linking Local, Sustainable Farming and Health” is a new Gillings Innovation Laboratory. Dr. Alice Ammerman, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP), is examining whether “eating local” impacts obesity, the environment, and the economic viability of small farmers and rural communities. The current food system is of concern because of its heavy dependence on fossil fuels (fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum) for large-scale production and long-distance transport of often high-calorie, nutrient-poor food.

More than 30 researchers, state officials, private sector representatives, and farmers are participating in the study. Case studies and documentary photography will explore the agricultural transition in North Carolina as tobacco becomes less economically viable. The study will also address the loss of small, mid-scale and minority-owned farms in rural communities already facing manufacturing layoffs and plant closures. Researchers will examine the environmental benefits of sustainable farming practices, determine whether there are nutritional and health benefits associated with consuming local food, and conduct an economic analysis of the opportunities and barriers to local food systems. Some of the goals are to develop and test innovative tools to identify market opportunities for farmers and to conduct policy analysis related to local food systems and sustainable agriculture.


UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention


The Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP) works in partnership with North Carolina communities to advance human, economic, social, and environmental health. Researchers at the Center collect and analyze data from Farm-to-School partners throughout a six-state region of the Southeast. Schools provide a local market for farmers and an opportunity for children to connect personally and intellectually to the source of their food. In partnership with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. State University and others, HPDP played a lead role in the state’s first Farm to Fork Summit in May 2009. In August 2009, the North Carolina Sustainable Local Foods Policy Council was established by the N.C. Legislature. The HPDP also runs the Green Cart Program, which increases access to local produce for disadvantaged groups in Orange, Durham, Wake, and Lenoir counties through weekly delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Tomatoes on VineResearchers at HPDP are also working to help consumers, specifically people using WIC Cash-Value Vouchers (CVVs) to buy local, fresh fruits and vegetables. The HPDP was awarded an Economic Innovation Grant from the North Carolina Rural Center to launch the program. The project team is working with farmers in Warren County, NC, to bundle produce into packs that are priced to correspond with CVVs. A branding and targeted marketing campaign are helping launch the products offered in an independent grocery store and two corner stores for a 10-week pilot period. The HPDP is also reaching out to the directors of preschools around the state to introduce more physical activity and healthy menus to young children.

In 2010, a team of volunteers broke ground on the Carolina Campus Community Garden. The garden provides space and support to grow fresh produce for employees. In 2012, volunteers harvested and distributed 770 pounds of food to lower-paid UNC employees. Periodic cooking and demonstrations show how to make healthy dishes from the harvest.

Researchers at the HPDP have also worked to make North Carolina one of the first hosts of the national FoodCorps program. FoodCorps, much like AmeriCorps, places motivated young leaders in limited-resource communities for a year of public service. FoodCorps Service Members work with a local organization to deliver hands-on nutrition education, build and tend school gardens, and strategize about how best to bring high-quality local food into public school cafeterias. HPDP researchers were successful in securing a FoodCorps member to live for a year in Warren County, where a number of symbiotic sustainable agriculture research projects led by HPDP are taking place. A total of six FoodCorps members have been placed in NC and will help to improve school nutrition and sustainable agriculture in North Carolina.


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