UNC Asheville Awarded $7,500 Grant from Walnut Cove Members Association to Address Campus Food Security

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“One of the biggest problems for getting people to eat healthy isn’t education. We all know, at this point, what we need to do,” said UNC Asheville health and wellness major Soni Pitts. “It’s access.”

Access to healthy, tasty food on campus will be Pitts’ goal as project manager for the $7,500 grant awarded to UNC Asheville by the Walnut Cove Members Association. Donna Bailey and Liz Saylor of the Walnut Cove Members Association presented the check to UNC Asheville students and staff on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. The grant, written by UNC Asheville Director of Sustainability Sonia Marcus, was awarded as part of the Healthy Campus Initiative—initiated through a partnership with Mission Health dedicated to improving the health of students, faculty and staff. 

“We want impact,” said Bailey, a member of the Bulldog Athletic Association and the UNC Asheville Foundation Board. “That’s part of our grant: what are we going to impact at the university?”

Addressing food security on campus and in the lives and homes of the campus community was exactly the kind of impact the Walnut Cove Members Association wanted to make, Bailey said. That’s what Pitts wants to impact, as well.

“Asheville is ‘Foodtopia,’ and yet we have stunning amounts of food insecurity within Foodtopia,” Pitts said. “I want to be able to bring the Foodtopia experience to campus—not necessarily in the artisanal or craft sense, but healthy, quality food, tasty food, new foods you haven’t tried, maybe new cooking techniques.”

In a 2016 study by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, 48 percent of student respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days. Pitts will work with a team of six other students to organize pop-up pantries, cooking workshops and community meals, among other activities, to address any food security issues that may exist at UNC Asheville.

"As part of the Healthy Campus Initiative, we began to have conversations with students, staff, and faculty to learn more about the health issues they felt we should prioritize,” said Jordan Perry, UNC Asheville’s Healthy Campus liason. “Nutrition and food justice came up immediately and repeatedly. At the same time, folks like Megan Pugh in Multicultural Affairs and Co-Kema Hines in Student Affairs were discussing the need for a campus food pantry, and Sonia Marcus was hard at work writing this grant application. All of these efforts came together with the generous support of the Walnut Cove Members' Association and the energy and passion of the students we brought on to build this project from the ground up." 

The students involved with the project include Allison Gurliacci, who will work on food sourcing and partnering with community non-profits; Hunter Newman, who will serve as assistant manager and has four years of experience working with food pantries; Sabrina Staton, who has seven years of experience working with non-profits including soup kitchens and serves as the manager of UNC Asheville’s Sol Garden; Miranda Brady, who raised tens of thousands of dollars from local businesses for her hometown food pantry; Shannon Herlihy, who has volunteered with UNC Asheville’s on-campus gardens and will host cooking workshops and community meals; and Luther Wardle, creator of a a hydroponic growth organization specializing in food pantry assistance and sustainable technology, who will work on branding, sustainability and supplying hydroponic plants.

“These students are go-getters,” Pitts said. “This is the dream team. I am working with the dream team.”

Throughout the semester the team will also partner with the students in two Intro to Health Promotion classes, who will devote five hours each to the project, for a total of 235 hours. “They’re going to be tackling some aspects of the food environment on campus,” Pitts said, “addressing the availability and accessibility of kitchen resources on campus for students and faculty—where they are, are they accessible, what equipment do they have, what can we improve? And another group of them are going to be working on a project to increase the availability of healthy snacks on campus.”

Pitts has 20 years of project management experience, as well as her own experiences with food insecurity.

“I have access to the food I want in more or less the quantities I want it,” Pitts said. “But I have been on food stamps; I’ve eaten the commodity cheese and food from the government; I’ve eaten apple butter sandwiches for a week because that’s what we had.”

Pitts hopes work will leave a lasting legacy on campus after she graduates. 

“Maybe with my background my brain has just associated that food is how you show people you care,” she said.

For more information or to get involved, contact Jordan Perry at jperry2@unca.edu or Soni Pitts at spitts@unca.edu.