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Carmen Byker works to promote healthy communities through local food

During the fall semesters of 2009 and 2010, Carmen Byker and fellow Virginia Tech volunteers packed bags of fresh fruits and vegetables from the Blacksburg Farmers Market for delivery to Head Start families in Montgomery County, Va.

“This program, ‘Fresh Produce, Fresh Start,’ aims to connect Head Start families with healthy, local foods and to farmers of the New River Valley,” said Byker, a Virginia Beach, Va., native and doctoral student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise.

   

Virginia Tech graduate students Carmen Byker (left) and Justin Shanks sort food from the Blacksburg Farmers Market. Virginia Tech graduate students Carmen Byker (left) and Justin Shanks sort food from the Blacksburg Farmers Market destined for Head Start families in Montgomery County, Va. Shanks, of Milwaukee, is working on his doctoral degree in human nutrition, foods, and exercise.

Byker came up with the idea for Fresh Produce, Fresh Start as an undergraduate in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, when she was awarded a 2007 Summer Undergraduate Research Scholar position to assist Associate Professor Elena Serrano and doctoral student Nick Rose with their “100-mile diet study.” They measured the effects a diet of foods raised within a 100-mile radius had on 19 Montgomery County residents.

“Through this research, I began to think seriously about the relationship between health, environmental problems, and sustainability,” said Byker, who also co-authored the resulting research paper published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

   

Carmen Byker organizes bags she and other Virginia Tech student volunteers will fill with produce for the Fresh Produce, Fresh Start program. Carmen Byker organizes bags she and other Virginia Tech student volunteers will fill with produce for the Fresh Produce, Fresh Start program.

As a senior, she received a Fralin Obesity/Nutrition Fellowship to study the environmental costs of obesity under the guidance of Serrano. That research resulted in an award-winning poster and paper that Byker presented at several conferences.

Byker was named an Outstanding Senior in 2008 by the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, concluding an undergraduate career that included four years as a Scholarship America recipient, funded through American Funds Mutual Fund Co., and as a member of the Alpha Zeta National Honor Fraternity.

With Serrano as her adviser, Byker began her doctoral studies in 2009 and initiated Fresh Produce, Fresh Start as a basis of her graduate research. The program was funded by a Student Entrepreneur Grant from Virginia Tech’s Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnership and by a Fralin Life Science Institute grant.

   

Laura Polant (left) of the nonprofit Good Food Good People and Carmen Byker load fresh produce into a van. Laura Polant (left) of the nonprofit Good Food Good People and Carmen Byker load fresh produce into a van for delivery to Head Start families.

Byker serves on the Blacksburg Farmers Market board and is the Education Committee chair. These roles helped her form connections with Good Food Good People owners Tenley Weaver and Dennis Dove, who became the vendors for Fresh Produce, Fresh Start.

Byker and Anne Farris, Montgomery County Head Start administrator, worked to implement the program. Virginia Tech’s community nutrition students created nutritious and culturally appropriate recipes. Head Start families provided Byker with data that will be used for developing her dissertation.

The impact of Fresh Produce, Fresh Start won’t end with the completion of Byker’s doctorate degree. She and Ellen Stewart, the Blacksburg Farmers Market manager, recently coauthored and were awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to initiate programs that will improve market access for students and low-income community residents. With Byker’s help, Head Start staff want to establish a garden that continues produce delivery and nutrition education.

Byker also has worked as a graduate assistant at the Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships, writing grants, serving as Graduate Network of Community Engaged Scholars chair, working with the Sustainable Food Corps, and assisting in developing programs such as the New River Valley Local Food Forum.

“Carmen's intelligence and deep compassion for others have enabled her to set a high standard as an exemplar of living our university's motto of Ut Prosim” (That I May Serve), said the center’s director, James Dubinsky. “From her undergraduate work as a Fralin Fellow to her current Ph.D. research, she works to create a better world for our children. And she can quilt. Carmen pieced together the quilt our center gave to the Honorable Raymond Joseph, the Haitian Ambassador to the United States.”

After completing her doctorate, Byker said she plans to “work with communities to realize the benefits of a localized civic food system. The environmental, social, and economic benefits will help create communities that consist not only of healthy bodies, but of people who are connected to the land, to a place, and to a world that slows down and appreciates its own existence.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Andrea Brunais at (540) 231-4691.

Video: Carmen Byker

    Carmen Byker

Virginia Tech graduate student Carmen Byker talks about the Fresh Produce, Fresh Start project.

Many adults don't eat fresh produce

    Fresh peppers are sold at the Blacksburg Farmers Market.

“Fruit and vegetable intake among Americans is low,” said Virginia Tech graduate student Carmen Byker. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 32.5 percent of adults eat at least two servings of fruit a day and only 26.3 percent eat at least three servings of vegetables per day. Children consume similarly low amounts.

Many adults and children lack access to and education about fresh produce or they can’t afford a variety of fruits and vegetables. “These and other factors of combine to create a tendency toward consumption of less healthy foods,” said Byker, who hopes her Ph.D. research will find ways to improve America’s eating habits.

A Heifer International volunteer

    Virginia Tech graduate and undergraduate students and faculty advisor Susan Clark trained at the Heifer International Ranch in Arkansas in March 2010.

Part of Carmen Byker’s doctoral research is based on her work with Heifer International, a global nonprofit that works to end hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. 

In 2010, Byker traveled with Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise Associate Professor Susan Clark and a group of students to the Heifer International Ranch in Arkansas for training in sustainable agriculture that included sheep herding, building fences, gardening, and more. 

Byker, who helped Clark design a course based on Heifer principles, is evaluating the impact of the ranch experience on students’ sustainable consumption habits. In 2011 Byker plans to participate in a Heifer project in Honduras.

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