Kate Renner, ’12, M.S. in Nutrition, has a passion for teaching others about nutrition. She discovered her interest while volunteering for the Peace Corps in El Salvador, but it took earning her Master of Science in Nutrition at Meredith to connect her drive and her experiences – and put her on the path to her current position as agriculture supervisor at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Mills River, N.C.
Renner manages a farm that provides fresh produce for the Taproom Restaurant at the brewery as well as ingredients for the famous craft beer. At the heart of all she does is a deep desire to share her knowledge about the importance of good nutrition that is grounded in healthy soil and a commitment to sustainability.
“One of the things I get the most enjoyment out of I learned at Meredith, which was the ‘hidden concepts of nutrition.’ My inspiration comes from connecting the dots, whether for the chefs I work with, the farmers, or the customers.”
Finding her path
Renner’s own experience of connecting the dots came when she was attending a lecture hosted at Meredith by Joel Salatin, a farmer made famous by having been featured in Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma. In that moment, she realized studying nutrition was a way to connect all of her passions – for teaching, sustainability, and healthy, delicious food. It would also allow her to make use of each of her varied, and valuable, life experiences.
Her stint in the Peace Corps was one of those experiences that helped steer her toward nutrition. As an Agroforestry and Environmental Education volunteer, she was expected to teach male farmers in El Salvador about best practices in their work.
“It was a huge growth experience,” said Renner. “I learned more than I could ever give.”
Renner soon recognized opportunities for change in her new community. She saw that many farmers were unable to read labels on conventional pesticides, and as a result were using more than was recommended and not always washing after applying the chemicals. In response, she helped start literacy classes. When she observed a lack of protein in their diets, she developed a rabbit project, giving the families a consistent protein source.
“I fell in love with farming, and in particular, the nutritional aspects of agriculture,” said Renner.
Pursuing her passion
Once she returned to the United States, she interned at a farm in Pennsylvania before coming to Raleigh with her husband, who was attending graduate school at NC State. After her eye-opening experience at Salatin’s lecture on Meredith’s campus, she looked into the graduate nutrition program and realized it was a good fit for her learning style as well as her lifestyle.
“I thought I would do better in small class sizes, and it was important for me to be able to work and go to school,” said Renner, who was managing the Midtown Farmers Market in nearby North Hills. Just as important, she knew her interests in both nutrition and agriculture would be nurtured at Meredith.
“I felt confident I would be able to pursue my passion. Clinical nutrition was never my thing, but classes were discussion-based, and I felt encouraged in my interests.”
While at Meredith, Renner traveled to Cuba, where she did a food sovereignty tour. She also connected with Bill Landis, professor of nutrition, who shared her interest in sustainability. Landis remembers Renner as a strong student who was dedicated to her studies and went well beyond simply memorizing material for exams.
“Kate dug into the material with the intention of true learning. She was mature, and saw the big picture. She cared about people and the universal right to good, quality, and adequate food,” said Landis.
Landis notes that Meredith’s program is designed both for students who want to pursue a clinical nutrition career as well as those who are interested in other aspects of the field such as nutrition education, community nutrition, food security, and sustainable food systems.
“Our program has always had a broad view of nutrition,” said Landis. “We have included in our curriculum the whole food system, from seed, to farm, to plate, and then the body (how foods are metabolized). And we have our garden as an outdoor learning or land laboratory.”
Breaking down barriers
After earning her M.S. in Nutrition from Meredith, Renner completed a dietetic internship and became certified as a registered dietitian. She also spent time working for a catering company that emphasized using local ingredients – another valuable experience she puts into practice in her current role.
“I can speak the language of both the farmer and the kitchen,” said Renner. “I understand the perils of farming and how to translate those challenges to the chefs.”
At Sierra Nevada, Renner is working to build a culture that breaks down barriers between farmer and chef. She has facilitated bringing chefs and servers to the farm, where they work for two hours each month, and takes chefs on tours of their local partners’ farms. She also brings farmers into the kitchen, where they present a 15-minute “farmer feature” every month to both chefs and servers.
“Telling our story is a big thing we’re trying to do here,” said Renner.
Farmers may talk about how their pigs are raised, or share the nutritional profile of their products. She’s invited cheese makers to visit as well as an 80 year-old farmer who has grown and researched heirloom tomatoes his whole life.
Other educational initiatives include a walking trail where brewery guests can see how mushrooms are grown; collaborations with the wellness department on topics such as cooking healthy food; and a “Dinner in the Garden” with beer pairings accompanied by garden maps showing where ingredients were raised. New this year is a tailgate market for locals, held every Tuesday; farmers within a 100-mile radius are invited to come and sell their products in the Sierra Nevada parking lot. Renner has also developed an intern program, with new projects dreamed up and executed by two interns each year.
“Last year, the brewers wanted fruit for their beers so the interns mapped out locations of apples, persimmons, mulberry, and blueberries. This year the interns helped raise chickens that lay seven kinds of white, blue, green, and brown eggs.”
But of course, Renner’s primary role is to raise fresh, beautiful ingredients for the farm and the restaurant in the most sustainable way possible. The farm is certified organic, bee friendly, and is an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.
In planning the gardens, Renner uses successional and season extension plantings, which enables produce to grow at varying times in the season so that the restaurant has a continuous supply of fresh produce. Restaurant staff also print menus on site to accommodate changes according to what is available.
Locally-sourced food is another focus of the farm. Sierra Nevada set a goal to source, on average, 60% of ingredients locally in 2018, and to raise that goal 1.5% each year to come, which is a goal they met and continue to strive for each year. Doing so translates to over a million dollars put back into the local agriculture community. Food not grown on the farm comes from regional sources in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee, though much comes from western N.C.
Renner credits the Grossman family, who founded Sierra Nevada, for their commitment to sustainability, which is reflected in the brewery’s LEED-certified-Platinum designation.
“Having the staff to process local ingredients is a testament to the values of this company,” said Renner. “They are only able to do it on this scale because they built it into the infrastructure of the kitchen.”
That commitment to sustainability is shared by the executive chef of the Taproom, Jessie Massie, with whom Renner works closely.
Renner sits down with her in late fall/early winter with seed catalogues to talk about what they want to plant and what yield they will need to support the restaurant.
Massie appreciates the partnership with Renner.
“Kate has such a positive attitude and passion for local, sustainable purchasing,” said Massie. “She is always willing to help me in sourcing and is proactive in our sourcing needs. We do a lot of planning throughout the year to grow and source as many local products as possible.”
Given the quality of the food served in the restaurant, it is critical that the produce from the farm be not only sustainably produced but also beautiful and delicious. Massie appreciates Renner’s gifts in this regard as well.
“She pays attention to quality and is always willing to get our products to us in peak ripeness. Having something picked and used within hours of coming from the field – it can’t get much fresher than that!”
Though she has chosen a different path from many of her classmates who pursued clinical nutrition careers, Renner maintains connections with her colleagues in the nutrition world, particularly those who share her passion for agriculture. One of those associates, Erin Massey, RDN, admires all that Renner has accomplished.
“Sierra Nevada is a state-of-the-art facility designed with sustainability in mind. Kate is a big part of that design,” said Massey. “I have never known a kitchen that grows its own food on site (organic no-less), and then serves that food with a continuously changing menu.”
Renner’s particular skillset, Massey noted, contributes a piece of the nutrition puzzle that dietitians do not typically contribute.
“Sustainability is a goal of the dietetic world, but comes with many barriers,” said Massey. “I think Kate’s expertise has allowed for a leap over the boundaries that are typically seen in our food supply and an embrace of a healthier, more sustainable way of living.”
For Renner, the drive is to continue finding new ways to teach even more people about the importance of good food, raised with care for the environment. Standing in the gardens that surround the Taproom, Renner clearly relishes being able to show visitors where their food is grown.
“My focus is always on how many people I can educate about local food. To see people taking pictures of themselves in the garden, smelling, touching – it’s pretty neat.”
Explore Meredith’s Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetic Internship programs at meredith.edu/nutrition.
Watch a video of Kate at work.