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UNC Team to Study Public Health Impact of Sowing Local, Sustainable Food System

June 21, 2008

By The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

Jun. 21–CHAPEL HILL — Would people and their communities be healthier if they still got food from local farms?

A team of UNC researchers has received a grant to study the public health impact of moving toward a local, sustainable food system. Results of the 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.

“Among the most pressing public health problems in the U.S. today are obesity, environmental degradation and health disparities,” said Alice Ammerman, a School of Public Health professor of nutrition and director of the UNC 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 — such as fertilizers, pesticides and gasoline — for large scale production and long distance transportation of often high calorie, nutrient poor food, from farm to processing facility to table.

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

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 are also facing manufacturing layoffs and plant closures — another blow to the local economy.

Ammerman’s interdisciplinary team comprises many UNC departments, centers and schools. Collaborators include the School of Public Health’s departments of health policy and administration and environmental sciences and engineering; the departments of anthropology and city and regional planning; 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 faculty from N.C. State and N.C. A&T State universities, 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,” Ammerman said.

Those groups include the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program, the U.S. arm of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the 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 Department of Public Health, the Wayne County Community Food Systems Initiative and the UNC Center for Integrating Research and Action, with regional partners in the southeastern, northeastern and Appalachian regions.

The 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.”

The team will establish a Gillings Innovation Laboratory through the School of Public Health. The project will be the eighth laboratory established through a gift to the school by Dennis and Joan Gillings.

As a supplement to laboratory, 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 members of the lab to explore economic opportunities to maintain land ownership and farm productivity given increasing consumer demand for locally grown food.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

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