Western North Carolina farms and locally grown food are probably the first things that spring to mind for most folks when they see the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s familiar green logo. But since it emerged in 2000 to aid the area’s then-declining agricultural sector, the nonprofit has also invested itself in working to shift mindsets to embrace healthy eating.
For nearly a decade through its Growing Minds program, ASAP has approached this goal through local schools and preschools, providing learning opportunities and resources for educators and school nutritionists, and working with dietetic interns at area colleges and universities. This month, the organization gives those efforts a giant push forward with the roll-out of the Healthy Eating in Practice Conference.
Scheduled to take place Sunday-Wednesday, Aug. 26-29, at the Omni Grove Park Inn, the ambitious new event is aimed at spreading the gospel of good food and lifestyle-focused medicine to the nation’s healthcare professionals, policy makers and educators. Three full days of workshops and hands-on activities will provide about a year’s worth of continuing medical education credits for physicians, dietitians, nutritionists and other healthcare practitioners.
“We just started looking around and thinking, ‘What other people do we need to help us with this, and who are the other stakeholders whose jobs it would be to make the case for why children as well as adults need to have these healthy food environments?’” says Growing Minds program director Emily Jackson.
The roster of more than 60 presenters includes a number of nationally known authors and educators such as Edwin McDonald of the University of Chicago School of Medicine, Doctor Yum Project founder Nimali Fernando and Kelly Brownell of the Duke University World Food Policy Center. Several local medical and nutrition professionals will participate as well, including ASAP board of directors member Brian Asbill — a cardiologist who helped inspire the event with his observation that 80 percent of his clients are suffering from illnesses caused by suboptimal diets.
The event also supplies Asheville flavor with the inclusion of hands-on cooking classes by local chef superstars such as John Fleer, Mark Rosenstein and Meherwan Irani and field trips to places like the West Asheville Tailgate Market, Warren Wilson College and Patchwork Urban Farms. Allowing people to have positive personal experiences with healthy food is the goal of these offerings, says Jackson. “We’ve found in our work that really getting to people on a more personal level translates to the professional level,” she says. “That’s why we wanted our conference to be very experiential.”
ASAP is well-known for hosting agriculture-focused events like its annual Farm Tour, CSA Fair and Business of Farming Conference, but planning this venture took staff into complex new territory. In developing the event, Jackson attended Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, and annual conference in Napa Valley, Calif., hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health.
She also collaborated with MAHEC to create class offerings that qualify for CME units — a process she says was quite a learning experience. “We’ve made it so our speakers are bringing information that meets those CME requirements. It has to be robust, not just touchy-feely.”
Getting the word out about the conference to medical professionals nationwide was also challenging, so ASAP relied on its event partners, the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the Duke World Food Policy Center as well as longtime supporter the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina for help.
“ASAP is just this little nonprofit in Asheville,” Jackson explains. “We knew nobody would pay attention if we reached out to them, so we really leaned heavily on our partners to help us with outreach.”
So far, says Jackson, registration has been strong, with attendees signed up from all over the U.S. Now her hope is that more people will begin to see where ASAP is coming from — and where it’s going — with its focus on educating nutrition and medical professionals.
“Our work with registered dietitians and dietetic interns over the years, that has just been tremendous,” she says. “Those people graduate and they take jobs in WIC or hospitals or school systems, so they’re out there really being ambassadors for local, healthy food. And we’re hoping these healthcare people are just another piece of that puzzle.”
ASAP’s Healthy Eating in Practice Conference happens Sunday-Wednesday, Aug. 26-29, at the Omni Grove Park Inn. For details, visit healthyeatinginpractice.org.