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Local Gardens Growing Food Security Across SC

raised garden bed with young squash and onions under hooped trellises
Lance Cheung
“A lot of times when folks will be giving away food, it’s the leftovers or scraps,” Fresh Future Farm Store Manager Tamazha North explains. “We’re putting those folks first in our mind and giving them the same quality that people who have a million dollars in their bank account would get.”

Across South Carolina, gardeners and farmers are searching for food security solutions.

Matthew Fischer is an Agribusiness Agent with the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service. He leads workshops across the Upstate (including the first multi-county “Introduction to Homesteading” series this year), teaching people how to grow their own food on their own land.

Fischer says the workshops, with topics varying from basic beekeeping to land management, are expanding amid growing interest during the last few years.

“One of the calls I get most in the office as an agribusiness agent, and this comes from all over the Upstate, is: ‘I have X amount of acres – 5, 10, 15, 20 acres – what can I do with it?’”

At the beginning of each workshop, Fischer asks participants why they are interested in learning to grow their own food — finding answers lying in a desire for self-sufficiency.

“It’s pretty much an even split between wanting a stable supply, in their minds, of food for their family as well as knowing where their food is coming from,” Fischer explains.

The workshops, Fischer says, serve “both ends of the spectrum” of experience, with people managing large established farms alongside newcomers looking to start smaller gardens.

“It’s very open to kind of have moments of collaboration and mentoring where we’ve seen people involved for a number of years able to share the wins and losses with those just now entering into the concept,” Fischer reflects.

The Medical University of South Carolina planted their half-acre Urban Farm in the middle of their downtown Charleston campus in 2012.

“We love to say that we dug up a parking lot and put in a garden,” Farm Director Dr. Susan Johnson says. “But the purpose was really to bring to kind of bring to life the work that we were doing around health promotion and community engagement.”

Making it Grow: MUSC Campus

Johnson explains the space is designed as a living classroom and is open to anyone from employees taking a break outside to weekend volunteers harvesting produce to people simply passing through.

Unlike a traditional community garden, where residents can rent space, the farm’s produce is donated to individuals or local community organizations like the Ronald McDonald house.

The farm’s success has grown alongside its educational programming. The farm built an online toolkit for other organizations asking how to start similar gardens. On-site visitors leave with “crop sheets” detailing the nutritional value of the fruits and vegetables they’re given as well as how to grow them at home.

“So we’re teaching people when they come into the farm how to take that knowledge into their backyard or on their porch or wherever it is that they live so that they can grow that produce for themselves,” Johnson says.

The pandemic also pushed the outdoor space — where there is a decreased risk of virus transmission — to become a busy site for food distribution and education programs as food insecurity increased both around and on the campus.

Up the Charleston peninsula, Fresh Future Farm sits on just 0.8 acres of the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood, growing fresh produce year-round.

“That ranges from bananas to citrus fruits like lemons, limes, oranges,” Fresh Future Farm’s Store Manager Tamazha North says, detailing the range of crops the farm has planted since breaking ground in 2014. “We have pears, peaches, apple trees and blackberries and blueberries, to name a few.”

North explains the closest traditional grocery store with healthy food options is two miles away, a difficult distance for people without cars. That makes the neighborhood a USDA-defined food desert — a term Fresh Future Farm reframes.

“We actually refer to it as food apartheid because deserts are a naturally occurring thing,” North explains. “But neighborhoods with a lack of food access are kind of created by design.”

Researchers have tied food insecurity, which disproportionately affects people of color, to illnesses like heart disease and resulting shorter life expectancies. In Fresh Future Farm’s census tract, the average life expectancy is 67.5 years. 89% of residents are African American, and the average median household income is $27,795. Three miles away, across the Ashley River, average life expectancy is 81.1 years, where 92% of residents are white and the median household income is $98,210.

Fresh Future Farm sells their produce on a sliding-scale, meaning prices adjust based on shoppers’ ability to pay. Their “neighborhood discount” generally takes 35% off the farm's base price, with residents self-qualifying for reasons such as living on a fixed income, supporting dependents, having student loans, paying off medical debt.

North says Fresh Future Farm’s model — planting, growing, and literally putting down roots in the community — allows them to serve their neighbors beyond simply an exchange of food. That nuance factors into their work from delivering tenants' rights information at the beginning of the pandemic to the way food makes its way from farm to plate.

“A lot of times when folks will be giving away food, it’s the leftovers or scraps,” North explains. “We’re putting those folks first in our mind and giving them the same quality that people who have a million dollars in their bank account would get.”