To Alice Ammerman, public health is public service
To her many talents, nutrition professor Alice Ammerman can now add hip-hop artist. The Thomas Jefferson Award winner accepted her award at the Sept. 8 Faculty Council meeting by performing a Hamilton-esque rap linking the Declaration of Independence author to recent “challenging times” on campus.
Her hair pulled into its customary no-nonsense bun, Ammerman drew chuckles from the audience as she rapped, concluding with this stanza:
Proud that UNC’s a place
Where social justice is no sham.
We can figure out together
What the heck to do with Sam.
Ammerman, director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the inaugural Mildred Kaufman Distinguished Professor of Nutrition, also gave a shout out to the men in her life: her three sons, her husband and her 102-year-old father, Howard Ammerman, sitting in the front row of the Kerr Hall auditorium.
The citation for Ammerman’s award, read by Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Nutrition and Medicine and chair of the nutrition department in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, praised the way Ammerman has consistently combined her public health research with public service.
“Her work is focused on reducing health inequities, particularly as it relates to diet and nutrition, and she’s worked in communities in some of the most vulnerable regions throughout our state,” Mayer-Davis read. “Dr. Ammerman is really the kind of senior faculty member who sets the standard for citizenship and service.”
In addition to heading one of the premier Centers for Disease Control-funded Prevention Research Centers in the country, Ammerman has co-led, with Marcie Cohen Ferris, the Food For All University-wide academic theme into its third year. The food theme has resulted in several campus and community programs and events, establishment of a multi-disciplinary gateway nutrition course for the campus, with plans underway for a food studies minor; and micro-grants to help campus and community entrepreneurs launch their ideas. Ammerman also teaches Public Health Entrepreneurship in the entrepreneurship minor program.
But she is probably best known as a researcher who is never afraid to tackle a new public health problem – and nearly every social ill is also a public health problem, as she sees it. Over the years, her center has taken on cardiovascular health in “the stroke belt” of the South, preschool nutrition and physical activity, self-management of chronic disease as well as empowerment and social support for poor and minority women.
“Part of the secret is being willing to get out of your comfort zone,” she explained. Researchers need to be able to say, “I know nothing about this particular health issue, but I I have experience working with communities and I’m anxious to learn more and work on the problem together.”
One of her newer projects addresses the opioid epidemic in rural areas. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this as a solution,” she said. Ammerman partnered with a rural North Carolina county to write a grant proposal to fund a county-wide opioid task force and intervention. A glitch in the submission process meant that the proposal didn’t get submitted, but that didn’t stop Ammerman.
“As one of my department chairs once said, ‘Never let a good grant proposal die,’” she said. They are revising the proposal to include covering the cost of sending a local clinical social worker to get special training on innovative addiction therapy and to explore novel approaches like home detox.
Ammerman is always on the lookout for research opportunities that can benefit North Carolina. She recently collaborated with a former student, Stephanie Jilcott-Pitts, now on faculty at Eastern Carolina University. They wrote a proposal to evaluate recent state legislation providing grant funding for convenience stores in food deserts to purchase refrigeration equipment for the sale of healthier food options. After a couple of failed attempts, they are now awaiting word on funding from NIH.
Recognizing an opportunity to expand these efforts, Ammerman and a number of community partners applied for and received funding from the C. Felix Harvey Award to Advance Institutional Priorities at Carolina.
This grant involves creating healthy frozen meals from locally grown meat and produce to be stocked in those new freezers. The meals will be sold locally at higher prices to subsidize the lower cost of the same meals in the convenience stores. The concept is similar to the Toms shoes model, in which for every pair of shoes a customer buys, Toms donates a pair to a needy child.
In her quiet, determined style, Ammerman has pulled many different groups together to work on the project, tentatively called Farm Fresh Meals on the Go. First, she convinced Weaver Street Market to make the meals using her recipes and local ingredients and to sell them at a higher price that would subsidize the meals sold in convenience stores. The meals will be frozen by Seal the Seasons, a Carolina spin-out company that freezes vegetables that North Carolina farmers can’t sell fresh.
The program is just the latest example of how Ammerman looks at a local problem, figures out the public health angle and connects the people and ideas to solve them.
Saving the world, one research grant proposal at a time, is all in a day’s work for Ammerman. As she said in her acceptance of one of the faculty’s highest honors, “I’m really proud to be part of a University that highly values diversity, cares deeply about the people of our state, wrestles with difficult challenges and allows me to follow my passions while still calling it a job.”