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Food apartheid and food sovereignty: How a tiny Rock Hill nonprofit is trying to bridge a red line drawn long ago

DeQuanta McKnight surveys gardening bins bursting with greens and vegetables that grow on the grounds of an old tennis court at the Emmett Scott Center in Rock Hill. Many of these foods will make the trip one block up Rock Street to FARMacy Community Farmstop on Crawford Road. Past this spot, the nearest fresh produce for sale is two miles away.
Jada Kirkland
South Carolina Public Radio
DeQuanta McKnight surveys gardening bins bursting with greens and vegetables that grow on the grounds of an old tennis court at the Emmett Scott Center in Rock Hill. Many of these foods will make the trip one block up Rock Street to FARMacy Community Farmstop on Crawford Road. Past this spot, the nearest fresh produce for sale is two miles away.

If you weren’t looking, you might not notice what’s missing.

This neighborhood has front yards and porch swings; flower beds and fluffy trees; churches and small businesses and sidewalks. There’s a college and a rec center; a business or two; a small park and a lot of parking lots.

You can see for yourself on this Google Map image:

Google Image

Two important things to keep in mind about this map: One, the area shown here is about five square miles worth of Rock Hill; two, if you were to cut this map into quarters, just about everything outside of the upper righthand quadrant is South Side. The busy-looking segment on the upper right, where Fountain Park and the brewpubs and the Rock Hill Sports and Events Center are, is downtown (or Old Town) – it’s where you go if you’re hanging out in Rock Hill.

But everything else below and to the left of the heart-shaped interchange where Dave Lyle Boulevard meets Johnston Street is not where the weekend bustle of a growing city happens. South Side is where older, established, historically Black neighborhoods are – set apart decades ago from what used to be an old-school, blue collar mill town.

So do you see what’s missing yet?

Look at the little blue balloon icons dotting this map. Those are businesses. The blue balloons with a shopping cart in them are food stores. But only one of the three shopping carts you’ll see here – the Food Lion way up in the top lefthand corner of the map – is a supermarket with a produce section.

If you stand where the red balloon in the center of the map is, it’s just about two miles to that supermarket. And maybe two miles isn’t far for a supermarket, but here’s something to know about South Side: 1 in 10 households within roughly 2 square miles of the red balloon don’t have access to a vehicle, and that number is just about 1 in 5 when looking at single-person households in this particular U.S. Census tract.

And single-person households are half the total number of households here.

All of which means that for a significant number of residents living in the South Side section of Rock Hill, getting access to fresh fruits and vegetables involves walking with groceries – either to and from the city My Ride bus (which is free and does run through this neighborhood, but still requires some legwork to get to, depending on how far one lives from a bus stop) or to and from the store, along a lengthy, unshaded stretch of Heckle Boulevard.

And now that you know all that, it might be easier to understand why Jonathan Nazeer opened a little place on Crawford Road where this red balloon sits. It’s called FARMacy Community Farmstop, and it’s stocked almost exclusively with locally grown fruits, vegetables, roots, tubers, and greens.

Much of the produce is so locally grown, in fact, that it’s actually grown onsite. Just out back, down a blocklong side street and over a paved walking trail is the old tennis court on the grounds of the Emmett Scott Center, a onetime African-American school that now serves as the neighborhood’s main community center.

Behind the fence surrounding the tennis court is a tarped greenhouse brimming with hydroponically grown greens. Outside the greenhouse are rows of raised, wood-framed garden bins spewing organic tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash.

These are community gardens, where neighbors grow their own fruits and vegetables to eat or sell through the store a short block away on Crawford Road. Most belong to seniors in the community who don’t have access to a garden space, says DeQuanta McKnight, one of the urban farmers here.

And given that access is what we’re really talking about, McKnight says these gardens serve as more than simply something to do – they help bring fresh fruits, vegetables, and greens to people who’ve been cut off from easy access to healthy food.

“It's good to be able to grow your own food in an organic environment,” she says. “We have a lot of people in our community that are fighting diabetes, high blood pressure. They need to be able to have the resources available for fresh, organic vegetables and fruits.”

And this is where politics and policy enter the conversation. Over the first half of the 20th century, cities and neighborhoods evolved as cloisters. There were white-only neighborhoods built, generally in nicer parts of towns, and there were nonwhite neighborhoods built, usually somewhere off to the side, where industrial and large commercial development went too.

As color-coded maps of these new neighborhoods came along, areas of town where African-Americans lived were typically stained red. The move was meant to show white investors where to buy houses if they wanted their property values to stay healthy. It was a process known as redlining, and South Carolina is full of examples of it, including in Rock Hill.

The below image is a 1935 map of the city, provided to South Carolina Public Radio by the University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality project. It shows a slightly different-than-usual coloring scheme for such maps. Many of the street names are different today, but the yellow-colored zones on the lefthand side are where South Side is today.

A 1935 map of Rock Hill, provided by the University of Richmond. Many of the street names are different today, but the ripples of neighborhood segregation are still rolling through South Side.
Mapping Inequality
University of Richmond
A 1935 map of Rock Hill, provided by the University of Richmond. Many of the street names are different today, but the ripples of neighborhood segregation are still rolling through South Side.

You’ll notice that all yellow areas are not only labelled racially, they also abut “fair,” “industrial,” and “blighted” areas, but not “best residential” areas.

So planners nearly a century ago did, indeed, have race on their minds. And this, says Jonathan Nazeer, has echoes to this day.

“We know city officials and developers who have been trying to get a big-box grocery store in this community for years,” Nazeer says. “It’s just difficult for them to come when they do their formula and figure that there's just not enough median income or roofs in the area. Well, that's not a result of the folks in the community. That's a result of policies that were created decades ago.”

And this has created what used to be called a food desert – a place full of residents who do not have convenient access to nutrition-dense food. But Nazeer and the people he works with at FARMacy don’t call it a desert.

“We prefer to use the term food apartheid,” he says. “Deserts are naturally created. Apartheids are something that's created through systems and policies.”

Food apartheid,” a term coined a little more than a decade ago, is defined as “a system of segregation that divides those with access to an abundance of nutritious food and those who have been denied that access due to systemic injustice” by Regeneration.org.

It puts the politics of food squarely in view, which is where Nazeer wants them to be. As he sees it, it’s impossible to separate politics from food – not just because they both need community and cultivation; not just because it takes the same kind of fertilizer to make them both work; not just because it’s such a chore to keep them both healthy; and not just because they both can go so bad if not properly cared for.

You can’t separate politics from food, he says, because it’s politics that creates the policies that encourage or obstruct access to food by hindering proximity to where (healthy) food is sold.

And “healthy” is what is at the heart of the mission of this roadside market in South Side.

“Technically, we're in the ‘hood,” says Jhayda Jackson (Jay), the agribusiness manager of Innovation Garden – an offshoot of Victory Gardens International, and the urban growing arm of FARMacy. “That's the thing about being in places that have food apartheid. It's like they pack us full of dollar stores, so we eat this crappy food instead of giving us access to fresher food when they know we need it.”

Over the years, there have been local food stores nearer to Crawford Road than the corner of Heckle Boulevard and Cherry Road. But Lonnie Harvey, who in his 45 years as a Rock Hill resident has served on the city’s Economic Development Council, says “it’s been a long time since there’ve been any fresh fruits and vegetables in that area.”

Harvey says that large-chain supermarkets have criteria based on metrics like resident density and college graduate population that they calculate before putting a store somewhere. And over the decades, these large stores have had trouble justifying opening a new market in a section of town where, according to 2021 Census numbers:

  • 2,430 people live
  • the median age is 40 years old
  • the median annual household income is $27,083
  • less than 6 percent have a college degree, and
  • where one in five residents live at or below the poverty line

So Harvey thinks Nazeer and his wife, Crystal, the co-founder of FARMacy, are onto something.

“I think they’re doing the right thing,” Harvey says. “There just needs to be more of it.”

And there is some hope here. First, says Nazeer, if food apartheid is a manmade problem, it means that the solution is manmade too. He doesn’t believe his store will solve the food access problem in South Side, but he does hope to start putting a dent in it.

This end of town is also the main focus of the Clinton Connection Action Plan, or CCAP, a redevelopment plan for South Side that aims to rejuvenate the area while holding onto its largely African-American history (just about 90 percent of South Side residents are Black).

One of the pillars of the CCAP is the Neighborhood Farmers Market/Grocery Initiative, which is looking to build a neighborhood farmer’s market and grocery store near the Saluda Street corridor (where a neighborhood supermarket last was, several years ago).

Until things expand, Nazeer says he hopes FARMacy will be a community gathering place that helps introduce South Side residents to organic gardening and acquaint them with local fresh food – with a side of sometimes tough, but, he says, absolutely necessary conversation about the intersection of food, politics, and solutions.

“This is that place where people can gather and have that conversation,” he says. “If we happen to be the facilitator of that, then we're happy to do that.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.