The way the crowd at Meredith College flocked to Joel Salatin last month, you'd have thought he was giving out money, not advice about agriculture and food systems.
A rock star of the sustainable food movement, Salatin's unconventional farming methods have been featured in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and the documentaries Food, Inc. and Fresh. His appearance in Raleigh for a screening of Fresh and a panel discussion drew a crowd of more than 600. Students gathered around him after the talk, ready to pick his brain.
Salatin's appearance and the vigorous community response is yet another indicator of the growing fervor for the sustainable food movement on Triangle college campuses. Students, faculty and staff at N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke are pursuing ways to change the food systems in their communities to make them more fair and reliant on crops and animals raised locally.
UNC defines "local" as food grown in North Carolina, with a focus on that grown within 150 miles of Chapel Hill. In 2008-09, the university spent slightly more than 20 percent of its $7 million annual food budget on local food for its dining halls, markets and vendors. And at N.C. State, "All Carolina" meals are served at least once a semester, with visiting farmers present at the meal. The N.C. State dairy program sells approximately 700 gallons of ice cream and 4,000 gallons of milk per month to campus dining services. A local, organic salad and fruit bar is offered every Friday. Duke University uses Bon Appetit, a company with a prominent environmental focus, as a food service provider. Most of the company's dining hall menus are local, sustainable and organic.
In a New York Times column earlier this month, Nicholas Kristof pointed to North Carolina farmers' outsized use of antibiotics on livestock. He cited the peer-reviewed journal Medical Clinics of North America, stating that "more antibiotics are fed to livestock in North Carolina alone than are given to humans in the entire United States."
This isn't news to student food activists at UNC. Frustrated by food in dining halls that may come from N.C.-based national producers who use such practices, a group of students formed FLO (Fair. Local. Organic.) Food in 2007. FLO Food co-director Jordan Treakle says the organization's goals of supporting local farmers and environmentally sound purchasing practices are not radical. "In many ways, the sustainable principles of our university and the dialogue of our administrators support our work," he says. "Figuring out the logistics and the economics behind it proves more difficult."
FLO Food's initial efforts resulted in a sporadic option of grass-fed beef in UNC's Lenoir Dining Hall. Since then, FLO has collaborated with Carolina Dining Services to make offerings of local, grass-fed beef a more regular menu choice.
Scott Myers, director of food and vending at Carolina Dining Services, visited Eliza MacLean's small-scale Cane Creek Farms in Snow Camp. UNC now buys 200 pounds of her beef weekly to serve at Lenoir as part of the student meal plan.
Myers says that Cane Creek beef costs twice as much as conventional beef, but it's offered at Lenoir as part of a meal plan at no extra cost.
(The beef is also offered at 1.5.0., a new, all-local food retailer on campus alongside Subway and Chick-fil-A, but it costs more than regular beef.)
"There's no way [Cane Creek] can even keep up with the demand. And the cost would be prohibitive to us," says Myers. "There's not even enough to supply us with 100 percent of everything we need."
Local food will continue to be more expensive without systemic change. Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, anthropology professor and FLO's faculty advisor, sees a disconnect in students' purchasing attitudes.
"If you cross the Pit and go into the student bookstore, you can pay $50 for a basketball jersey, or buy an expensive Moleskine notebook. Students do buy expensive things," he says. "The true cost of food is more than what you pay for a cheap, little hamburger. I don't think it's out of place to sell real, healthy, local food."
At N.C. State's student-run Campus Farmers' Market, you may not find a fat hog, but you will find bacon. Nine vendors are at the Brickyard every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Duke and UNC also offer on-campus farmers' markets organized by staff and targeted mostly to faculty and staff, with limited student involvement.
Steven Horton, an N.C. State alum, goes beyond the farmers' market concept to host a weekly agricultural lunch discussion for students called Crop Circles every Wednesday at noon at Farmhouse Pizza on Hillsborough Street. From activism to organic methods of pest and weed control, farmers, professors, activists and students come to talk shop and learn about sustainable agriculture methods.
Students at UNC, Duke and Meredith get their hands dirty digging up patches of university soil as part of their organic, student-run campus gardens. At Meredith, Bill Landis came to lead the Master of Nutrition program eight years ago after a long journey sparked by eating an apple.
"I happened upon the realization that as a professional nutritionist, I knew very little about where my food came from," he says. "I was eating an apple and had a moment of revelation. Where did that apple come from?"
He took a sabbatical to learn about sustainable agriculture, and then started an edible landscape at Meredith, including the student-run garden and an orchard planted last fall, with fruit-bearing trees, berry bushes and grape vines. A produce stand should pop up on campus this summer where students can sell fruits and vegetables from the garden. It was Landis' department that brought outspoken farmer and advocate Salatin to speak at Meredith's third annual Film Feastival this month.
At UNC, as spring settled into Chapel Hill, students, faculty and community members climbed into their work boots. The first official work day for the Carolina Campus Community Garden began at 8:30 a.m. More than 80 people worked throughout the weekend tilling 25 garden beds. Their goal is to grow produce for low-wage workers at UNC.
"I like the idea of providing fresh produce, which often can be really expensive," said coordinator Claire Lorch.
The communal plots are on 8,000 square feet of land at Wilson Street and Cameron Avenue. The nonprofit The Strowd Roses Foundation funds the garden.
"This is the first campus-wide effort to have a garden that benefits the larger community. When it boils down to it, people just want community," says the garden's Hannah Prentice-Dunn. "You can get a community surrounding a garden, with people actually focusing on what they eat."
Due in large part to the student food activist movement, university departments like nutrition, health, agriculture and environmental sciences are overlapping.
N.C. State, a land grant university with historically strong industrial agriculture and food science programs, launched a successful agro-ecology department in 2001 that eventually inspired students to start the campus market.
UNC students can take American Studies 375: "Cooking up a Storm: Exploring Food in America" or "Eats 101," an honors seminar in food and culture.
Colloredo-Mansfeld's UNC anthropology class, "Culture and Consumption," spurred an undergraduate research project focused on the economic role that grocery stores play in connecting consumers to local food.
"There's this growing and powerful movement," says Colloredo-Mansfeld. "Students themselves are making a stronger curriculum out there, making a big push to get things changed."
Graduate students at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and UNC's Gillings School of Public Health work with local farmers in understanding local food systems as they relate to the environment or economics.
The Gillings Project at UNC works with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, an organization, education center and farm in Goldsboro partly established by N.C. State and N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University. The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke offers a Politics of Food class.
Landis says the study of nutrition has changed in the last 10 years. "The study of nutrition was really focused on once food was on the plate and entered your body. It didn't take quite the holistic view on who's raising your food and where it's coming from and how it's nourishing your body," he says. "There is interest and enthusiasm in looking at how food affects your body holistically among a lot of dietitians and professionals. We have got to make sure our students get the entire food system view."