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Colorado Springs professor of nutrition science expands studies to farming, cooking and community education

August 2, 2016 Updated: August 2, 2016 at 9:52 am
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Dr. Nanna Meyer, center, assistant Professor of sports nutrition science at UCCS and two of her graduate students put on a cooking demonstration at a farmers market. Courtesy photo

Nanna Meyer finds working at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is swell.

"When I wake up in the morning, I'm excited to know I get to go to work," the associate professor in health sciences said.

But it's more than that. She has a deep feeling of purpose addressing an urgent issue: relocalizing the food supply in the Pikes Peak region to make the community not only more resilient but also healthier with access to good food from farmers we know. An initiative called Sustainability, Wellness and Learning (SWELL) is part of what drives her excitement.

Meyer, who started at UCCS in 2008, is a former World Cup alpine skier who turned her focus to Olympic sport nutrition after suffering several injuries. She founded the Sport Nutrition Graduate Program and has been involved in it ever since. She views local and regional food systems through the lens of higher education, believing that health and sustainability are linked closely and should be taught across academic fields, especially in health professions.

Students involved in SWELL launched the university's first student garden shortly after Meyer arrived at UCCS.

During the past seven years, she has helped facilitate ideas for field-based education on the east side of campus, where a garden, greenhouse, farmhouse and sustainability demonstration house are located, offering students hands-on learning experiences. The greenhouse was built while UCCS was under a corporate food service management company that furnished food for the campus until May 2014. The school brought the operation in-house through a team effort led by Susan Szpyrka, senior vice chancellor of administration and finance.

"Now we grow as much of the food on our farm and in the greenhouse that we can for use at dining facilities on campus, with an academic connection," Meyer said.

You'll find all the typical garden suspects such as herbs, squash, greens, carrots and tomatoes. But there are also less likely items such as heirloom flour corn, amaranth, sorghum and buckwheat, which are part of the Ark Watershed Grain Project.

Kelley Jennings, farm manager at UCCS, is always on the lookout for new items to grow and takes suggestions from Meyer, students and campus chefs. Jennings is also attentive to climate, observing what grows well, giving crops time to establish and leveraging the greenhouse for year-round growing.

At UCCS, field learning goes beyond linking students to growing food. It extends to learning to cook, which includes recipe development, tasting, food photography and the pleasures of slowing down to commune over a meal.

To that end, the UCCS Farmhouse offers informal classroom settings with two home-style kitchens.

Meyer's graduate sport nutrition students prepare food to use in The Flying Carrot Food Literacy Project. The mobile food education truck is funded through Pikes Peak Community Foundation and collaborates with SWELL and other outreach programs.

"The bus was given to us by the Pikes Peak Foundation," Meyer said. "We go to farmers markets and other venues to offer taste education, cooking and food literacy. We use CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) leftover shares from the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers. It's a way to connect our students to the community and educate about our farms in the region, what's in season and cooking."

Students meet at the farmhouse, design a meal from the produce, and then cook, taste and modify it before it ends up as a Flying Carrot recipe. The truck most often can be spotted Wednesdays (3-7 p.m.) at Colorado Farm and Art Market during market season.

Because of UCCS' food service transition and Meyer's push for sustainable, farm-to-fork food literacy, graduate students prepare food from the farm and greenhouse for Food Next Door, a local food station at Café 65, a marketplace-style spot in the University Center. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the student-prepared vegetarian options are available as well as SWELL burgers.

"SWELL burgers use the protein flip (idea) using half the meat, which is combined with roasted carrots and beets, Colorado beans, garlic-infused mushrooms, green chili, local cheese and lots of fresh herbs," Meyer said.

Her ultimate desire is to play a role in re-establishing the connection to good food. And with a brand-new teaching kitchen at Lane Center for Academic Health Sciences, UCCS' nutrition curriculum will help people get back into cooking and eating together.

"Slow down. Grow, cook and disconnect," she said.

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