ECU and Food Lion Feeds launch teaching kitchen

When East Carolina University’s new Farm 2 Clinic (F2C) mobile teaching kitchen and pantry hits the road it will deliver more than nutrition to underserved people in the region. The 28-foot trailer, wrapped in bold purple, with imagery of colorful produce and program logos, also carries the university’s values.

“I am struck by how this is a mobile billboard for ECU’s mission of student success, public service and regional transformation,” said Christopher Dyba, vice chancellor of university advancement. “I cannot help but have a bit of awe seeing this and want to take a moment to say how impressive and beautiful this is.”

The mobile teaching kitchen and pantry launched Tuesday at a ribbon cutting and celebration at the College of Allied Health Sciences. Through its hunger-relief platform, Food Lion Feeds, Food Lion invested $150,000 in ECU’s innovative F2C initiative to make the trailer possible.

“Today’s event celebrates a longtime and meaningful corporate partnership with Food Lion,” Dyba said. “Together, we share an important commitment to ending hunger and addressing health disparities in our local communities.”

Dyba also recognized Duke Endowment, which provided programmatic support for the Department of Nutrition Science to manage the Fresh Start program, and Camping World and Signsmith for their efforts to outfit and design the trailer.

Through the Food Lion partnership, the mobile teaching kitchen and pantry is equipped with two commercial refrigerators, shelving, sinks, spaces for food preparation and cooking, and extensive storage for educational supplies. At the ribbon cutting, the trailer also was loaded with hundreds of pounds of fresh produce donated by Food Lion. The produce will be provided to patients at the Pitt County Care Clinic, run by Dr. Tom Irons, and the Hope Clinic in Bayboro.

The mobile teaching kitchen and pantry is designed to improve access to healthy food and support improved nutrition and health for uninsured, low-income diabetes patients in rural eastern North Carolina. The program provides nutrition science students experience as they guide patient participants to learn food skills while enabling them to provide fresh, local produce to patients directly.

Addressing food insecurity

David Garris, director of operations with Food Lion, said the company supports ECU’s Farm 2 Clinic initiative because of its transformative approach to addressing food insecurity.

Cari Jones, graduate student in nutrition science, gives a tour of the new Farm 2 Clinic mobile teaching kitchen and pantry while discussing healthy eating habits. (ECU Photo by Rhett Butler)

Cari Jones, graduate student in nutrition science, gives a tour of the new Farm 2 Clinic mobile teaching kitchen and pantry while discussing healthy eating habits. (ECU Photo by Rhett Butler)

“We applaud ECU and the work you’re doing. We’re honored to be a part of and support your mobile teaching kitchen and pantry,” Garris said. “Now more than ever, unique approaches and collaborative partnerships, like the one we have with East Carolina University, are needed to address food insecurity. Together, we are meeting our community’s needs by increasing access to fresh and nutritious food and addressing the root causes of hunger.”

The partnership with ECU carries a personal element of pride for Garris, who describes himself as loyal and bold, purple and gold.

“To say that I am proud of East Carolina might be an understatement. I am incredibly proud to support their efforts. As a former student of East Carolina University, where I studied music education, I was a proud Marching Pirate and have always felt a sense of belonging,” Garris said. “We love this university, and even more so, we love what this university means and does for eastern North Carolina.”

Dr. Michael Wheeler, chair of the nutrition science department, described the new mobile kitchen as a celebration of three Ps — the right people, project and partnership

The idea of a program to take nutrition science into the field was discussed for years within the department. He said it became reality when Dr. Lauren Sastre, assistant professor and founder and director of the F2C initiative, created the project. Sastre and F2C graduate students leaders recruited more student volunteers to implement the program. By establishing partnerships in the community more people became involved and supported the initiative.

Community impact

At Hope Clinic in rural Pamlico County, Executive Director Yolanda Cristiani and staff provide primary health care to low-income, uninsured adults. Cristiani heard a presentation on ECU’s Fresh Start program and applied to participate.

“From the health coaching to the diabetes education and exercise, and the nutrition aspect, this program exceeded my expectations,” she said. “One (program graduate) lost a considerable amount of weight, gained confidence, got a job, and now we see him outside the grocery store he now works in, swinging a kettle ball on his breaks. This has really changed his life in a lot of ways.”

Cristiani said she sees many positive results of the Fresh Start program in her community. Patients have included their family members and shared the lifestyle changes and nutrition lessons at home. She said the addition of a mobile teaching kitchen and pantry will significantly boost their support of marginalized communities.

Hands-on learning

Brandon Stroud ’21 ’23, F2C’s assistant director, is completing his dietetic internship with ECU and plans to be a registered dietitian. His career path has been influenced by working in the community with Fresh Start and watching F2C grow.

“This program was my first exposure to community-engaged nutrition research and programming and changed my career trajectory as I want to continue to find innovative ways to work in and serve eastern North Carolina,” Stroud said. “One highlight for me was a patient whose blood sugar was so high it had started to affect his vision, and he told us that after the program he was able to see better.”

Stroud said much of the program’s success was generated by the involvement of more than 200 students who contributed 200,000 volunteer hours, participated in 23 student research projects, and assisted in developing 14 national peer-reviewed scientific presentations and publishing five peer-reviewed manuscripts.

“We are not only serving eastern North Carolina, we are showing the rest of the United States how to do food and nutrition programming in novel ways,” Stroud said.

Brooke Gillespie ’23, F2C coordinator and a nutrition science graduate student, began as a volunteer with the Fresh Start program in her junior year.

“At that time, I was so beyond excited to get my foot in the door with a program that represented ECU and the eastern North Carolina community. Little did I know, I was stepping into a world that would completely change my life,” Gillespie said.

During her earlier involvement in Fresh Start, Gillespie said Sastre took her under her wing and trusted Gillespie with food preparation and recipe development, vital components that keep the program running. Thanks to Food Lion, she said, program components will be managed with ease using the mobile kitchen.

“I can tell you that our impact is far beyond what numbers can represent. I have been able to watch students go from shy, nervous and unsure of their abilities into being some of the most self-assured, confident and driven future health care professionals,” Gillespie said. “I have listened to patients who have told me how this program has helped them face barriers they never thought they would overcome. I even had a patient tell me how when she started the Fresh Start program she thought that diabetes had control over her life, but now she knows that she has control over her diabetes.”

ECU’s Pursue Gold campaign to raise half a billion dollars will end in December. This ambitious effort will create new paths to success for Pirates on campus, across the country and around the world. Donor gifts during the campaign will keep ECU constantly leading and ready to advance what’s possible. Learn more at ECU’s Pursue Gold .

Food Lion invested $150,000 to support the College of Allied Health Farm 2 Clinic initiative. (ECU Photo by George Crocker)

Food Lion invested $150,000 to support the College of Allied Health Farm 2 Clinic initiative. (ECU Photo by George Crocker)