Tony Peele's pants are still splotched with chicken blood. When UNC-Chapel Hill's FLO Food group asked Spence's Farm to donate chickens for a community dinner, the farmer agreed on one condition: that the students pitch in with the work of bringing the birds from farm to table. The evidence lingers, entrenched in the fabric of Peele's pants.
"It was a pretty unique experience, especially when you get to feed hundreds of people," Peele said.
The Feb. 14 dinner was part of a three-day Southeast Youth Food Activist Summit hosted by the student-run organization, which derives its name from the acronym for "fair, local and organic." The event was sponsored by the Real Food Challenge, a national organization that aims to redirect 20 percent of all food purchased by colleges and universities (currently $4 billion) toward real food by 2010.
"Most of what we do is trying to understand that whole process and figuring out how to find an equitable way to pursue what we, as a student group, think the university needs to do," said Peele.
FLO member Alena Steen said the group seeks to form "a direct connection to the people that grow your food and the environment that makes your food possible in the area."
Many citizens do this by buying at a local co-op or purchasing directly from farmers; for FLO members, hosting the community dinner for 250 at the Hargraves Center meant doing some dirty work. Local food activist and caterer Vimala Rajendran cooked up Tandoori chicken and Western-style barbecue drumsticks using her secret, mostly organic and local recipes. Locally harvested sweet potatoes and collard greens were served in heaps.
There were 87 registered participants for the weekend's summit, including college students from as far as Florida and Louisiana, young farmers and environmentalists. This was the first summit held in the Southeast. Other events included a keynote address by N.C. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, and a variety of hands-on workshops.
"They were mostly skill-oriented workshops," said Steen. "We had workshops on issues on young farming, and how to start community gardens, etc."
And on Sunday, Steen said, they stopped talking and started thinking about action items for the Southeast food movement, determining what steps needed to be taken next.
North Carolina native and food activist Mark Gravel attended the summit as a consultant for the Eat Well Guide (eatwellguide.org). He participated in the Carolina Community Garden Co-op workshop on Saturday.
"We were out right off of Columbia Street. There's this plot of land that a resident in Chapel Hill had donated to the university, and they let these students build a new community garden on a parcel of land. We were building raised beds of vegetable crops and raking leaves, shoveling dirt—a lot of teamwork," Gravel said.
He added, "People that I met are seriously engaged in what they're doing. They're not just studying something. They're out there in these community gardens. They're out there trying to get involved in policy projects and policy work."
This is evident in both Steen and Peele's passion for their work with FLO and how it translates to their goals after college. Steen, a junior at Carolina, said she wants to be a farmer and is working on a local farm now. Peele, also a junior, expressed interest in being involved in policy affecting the food system.
"Our primary objective is to make sure that our public institution is held responsible to North Carolina," said Steen. "'Fair' means the growers and the many, many farm workers behind them are compensated and treated with justice. 'Local' is to prioritize on the local economy. 'Organic' is our responsibility to our particular land, to North Carolina's environment."
In addition to hosting a farmers' market and sponsoring sustainable food weeks, the two-year-old student group partners with Carolina Dining Services to incorporate more locally produced food into on-campus meals, including cage-free eggs and local, grass-fed beef.
"Other than the recognition, I think it's pretty remarkable that students are passionate about these concerns to sacrifice their weekend to come and share stories with one another," said Steen. "It echoes throughout the region. I'm really excited about that and happy to be a part of it."
On Tuesday, March 31, FLO hosts "Power, People, Poultry" (a follow-up to last year's "Power, People, Pork"). It includes a chicken fry on the quad at 5 p.m. and a speaker panel in UNC's Carroll Hall, Room 111, at 6 p.m.
FLO Food and Duke's Farmhand also host a Sustainable Food Seminar Series that meets every other Wednesday, alternating between UNC and Duke campuses.
For information, see studentorgs.unc.edu/flo.