On Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, more than 300 UNC Asheville students, faculty, staff and community members gathered on the Quad for a special Farm-to-Table dinner. Tables covered in blue-and-white checkered tablecloths filled the Quad, illuminated by string lights and, as the evening wore on, an almost-full moon. From the stage diners listened to performances by the Student Bluegrass Ensemble and by Cherokee musician and storyteller John Grant Jr. The meal included foods grown in campus gardens and in local Asheville gardens and farms, featuring dishes such as pickled beets, green bean salad, plant-based “meat” hash with sweet potatoes, red and yellow tomatoes, beef stew with potatoes and apples, and more.

But the evening was about more than delicious food. It was a chance to build community, celebrate sustainability efforts at UNC Asheville, and learn more about the history and culture of Western North Carolina.

“I really am just so proud of the work that goes on at UNC Asheville,” Chancellor Mary K. Grant said in her remarks to the crowd. “A big piece of who we are and what we do is to connect deeply and meaningfully with our community, and we do that in no finer way than when we take the time to learn about different cultures, share experiences, break bread, and spend time together.”

Much of the evening focused on Cherokee culture, including language, music and dance, and storytelling. Students from UNC Asheville’s first Cherokee language course demonstrated a simple conversation in Cherokee, and John Grant Jr. taught the audience to count to 10. He also taught participants several traditional Cherokee group dances, which had participants dancing in circles and loops around the Quad. The meal included Cherokee bean bread, a longtime staple of the traditional Cherokee diet made from beans and corn meal.

“I’m always reminded when I navigate these spaces that these are ancestral homelands of the Cherokee, and we are visitors, guests,” said Trey Adcock, assistant professor of education and director of American Indian Outreach at UNC Asheville. “And that’s a very different relationship with the space and with the land than private ownership and extracting resources for profit. We are lucky to be here.”

Many of UNC Asheville’s community partners also joined the dinner, including Mountain Food Products, a produce supplier that provides local produce to restaurants and institutions in WNC—including to UNC Asheville’s Dining Services.

“I think something like this is really almost hard to measure how important it is to farmers,” said Ron Ainspan, owner of Mountain Food Products. “Part of what we do is try to encourage and promote the local farming community and local agriculture, so that’s something that takes a lot of work and effort. There’s so much that is available in food that comes from far away and has a bigger carbon footprint without the connection to community, and so when a community institution like the university gets behind a program like this, it really cements those connections and paves the way for the future.”

UNC Asheville junior Carter Smith volunteered to help with the dinner after hearing about it from her roommate, who helped to organize the event. “I’m really passionate about food systems, and how they relate to a lot of other issues in our lives, dealing with hunger in our communities, and agriculture and the environment,” Carter said. “And I love that there can be these really joyous celebratory events that also acknowledge these issues that are going on in our society.”

At the end of the evening, as the moon rose higher, plates were scraped clean and the last dance was winding down, John Grant Jr. reminded everyone at the dinner that they had all done something special together that evening. “We made each other smile,” he said.