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Forging a Sustainable Path

For some students, college is a fairly straightforward path: Choose a major you enjoy, take the required courses and eventually graduate. For others, such as Ariel Fugate, the road is full of twists and turns. Fugate, a Caldwell Fellow, forged a path that took her from zoology through wildlife and fisheries and agriculture, into a close examination of sociology, and finally, to a major she designed herself in the college’s interdisciplinary studies program.

Fugate arrived on campus from Lexington, Ky, as a zoology major. She was an aspiring veterinarian. “I was pretty narrow-minded at that point, and focused on a career I knew something about,” she recalls. “But then I started looking into how wildlife is affected by agriculture.”

Led by her curiosity, Fugate signed up for a class in wildlife management. That course opened her eyes to the adverse effects that some farming practices can have on wildlife habitat and water quality. As she studied conservation practices, Fugate became interested in agroecology, the study of ecology on farms.

She was also intrigued by societal issues related to food and sustainability. The field of sociology beckoned.  “I wanted to know more about the social aspects of eating, and how that affects human health,” she says. “I also wanted to see how our eating habits impact the environment.”

As Fugate became more informed, she grew increasingly concerned about the public’s lack of general awareness about these issues.  “I don’t think many of us make a connection between our personal eating habits and the toll those habits take on us, on the community and on the earth,” she says. “I wanted to find some ways to build awareness and to encourage people to develop eating habits that were healthier and that supported the environment.”

Fugate started with a population with whom she could readily identify: students. And she chose a venue where they consumed many of their daily meals: the campus dining halls. She conducted research on NC State University’s food systems, examining what was served in the dining halls, asking how the university decided what to serve and learning where that food came from.

She is proud to report that the university is moving toward a goal of ensuring that at least 10 percent of the food it serves is locally sourced by the end of 2012.

She is also encouraged by the university’s response to some of her research findings. While she was an intern with the university’s Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling, she conducted a waste audit of one of the dining hall’s dumpsters. “We found that 70 percent of what was in the dumpster was compostable,” she says. “Based on our findings, the dining halls across campus began composting. I like to think my research helped contribute to this tipping point by spreading more awareness.”

Outside the dining halls, Fugate was inspired to help provide fresh, local produce to students and others on campus. Along with fellow student Eric Ballard (’09), she co-founded the Campus Farmers Market in 2009 to draw attention to and build support for sustainable food systems.

Farmers and other vendors set up shop on the brickyard every Wednesday during the growing season to sell their produce, meats and cheeses, body lotion and other crafts—all of which are produced in North Carolina.  The market is distinguished by its focus on education. “We want customers to find high-quality affordable products, and we want to increase their awareness about how important it is to support the local economy,” Fugate says.

Beyond campus, Fugate shared her passion for sustainable practices by co-teaching a “Cooking Matters” course for children at the Boys Club or Raleigh through the nonprofit Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. The course is part of a national curriculum on healthy eating called “Share Our Strength.”

Fugate and another Caldwell Fellow were responsible for incorporating a gardening component into the curriculum to give the young boys a feel for food sustainability, which is something she says they genuinely appreciated. “We used something called vermicompost,” she explains. “It’s essentially the process of breaking food waste down through the addition of worms. The boys loved that!”

Fugate says her self-designed interdisciplinary major has been the perfect way to tie together her interests in agriculture, sustainability and sociology. “Food touches many areas, so it’s hard to limit it to just science or just sociology,” she says. “The interdisciplinary studies option gives me the ability to explore both the scientific and social aspects of food.”

This semester, for example, Fugate has been conducting research in a nearby county about food environments. “We have looked at such factors as where supermarkets are located in relation to neighborhoods and to the residents’ income levels,” she says. “My major lets me apply what I’m learning  to the real world. I have become much more focused on how we can make a difference in communities at large.”

Fugate’s efforts won’t end when she graduates this spring. Nor will her interdisciplinary orientation. “I intend to keep learning about food insecurity and sustainability,” she says. “And I would like to keep working with interdisciplinary topics, whether it’s through education or a communications position in which I could raise awareness about food issues.”

By Jen Jernigan, CHASS Communication Intern

This article is reposted from the CHASS 2012 magazine, Accolades.