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The phrase “eating your words” took on a new meaning when the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health department of nutrition hosted a group of prospective graduate school students as part of an early December interview dinner at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café.

Health and nutrition words like “sustainability,” “obesity,” “access,” and “behavior change” dominated the conversation while a dozen students hoped to prove themselves as stellar academics and vital contributors to the department so that they would receive an acceptance letter in the new year.

But it was not just the prospective students that had something to prove –UNC-Chapel Hill also needed to put its best foot forward to attract the best and brightest.

Nationally, the top nutrition departments compete for the same promising and dedicated students. UNC-CH stands apart because its program is nestled in a community focused on actually living healthy and sustainable lives, not just studying them. So how does one nutrition department showcase its faculty, students, and community all in one evening? Simple – serve those prospective students dinner.

Not just any dinner, though. A dinner that speaks to all of nutrition’s challenges and successes: delicious healthy food made from local organic ingredients bought from hard-working farmers prepared by workers earning living wages served to everyone regardless of socioeconomic circumstance.

A tall order, but no one embodies our professional goals more, and rises to that challenge, than Vimala Rajendran of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café. For six months as a restaurant owner, and years as a popular home cook, Vimala has lived UNC-CH department of nutrition’s values and shared her time and talents with our whole community.

Vimala believes in feeding the community well, and she does so despite daunting odds. With three days notice and a limited budget, Vimala created a mouth-watering meal for 25 from locally sourced meat and produce. She insisted on personally making up a batch of bhatura at the last possible moment so the bread would be hot upon arrival. She never met a single guest yet she insisted on making them feel welcome in Chapel Hill the best way she knows how – through good food.

Hospitality and the sharing of meals is an important part of healthy living that has fallen by the wayside in this fast-paced world, but the heady aroma of cumin, cardamom, and turmeric prepared with so much care signaled otherwise to the prospective students gathered on that cold December evening.

Vimala’s generosity extends far beyond the dining room. From the money UNC-CH spent on dinner for 25, she donated 10 percent of her earnings to the Carolina Campus Community Garden (CCCG), another player in the Chapel Hill community and a partner of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. The CCCG, in turn, provides low-wage UNC-CH employees with fresh local produce free of charge to extend the giving circle and perpetuate food justice for all. At the same time, UNC students have the opportunity to connect to the garden and learn valuable growing skills through volunteer work.

It is one thing to believe in big ideas like healthy affordable food for all people, and community health through collective effort; it is quite another to truly live these ideas and ideals. Those prospective students will have choices to make this spring about where to go and what to study, and when they make their decisions they will do so knowing that here at Carolina we are a community that strives to live our values to support healthy initiatives and to live sustainable lives.

We are a community that eats our words.

Linden Elder, PhD student in the department of nutrition

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