BY LISA TURANSKY

In recent weeks, The Post and Courier’s Doug Pardue has poignantly revealed challenges faced by communities along the I-95 Corridor and Mill Crescent in his series “Forgotten South Carolina.” Stymied by poverty and inadequate access to quality health care, education, and economic opportunities, these communities are often overlooked and underserved.

But as we move forward with rural economic development solutions, let’s be careful not to repeat past mistakes. As the Rural Resource Coalition SC (RRC-SC) highlighted in its guest column in The Post and Courier last weekend, increased public spending must be strategic with targeted investments that ensure long-term economic success. Throwing money at a problem without coupling it with a sustainable solution is wasted time and resources.

It’s time to begin pursuing a frequently forgotten avenue of sustainable economic development for the I-95 Corridor, Mill Crescent and, for that matter, the entire state of South Carolina. One solution in particular links rural economies to thriving urban cores to provide an ongoing flow of revenue from urban consumers to rural businesses. That solution is right beneath our feet and has been for generations — agriculture.

The place is perfect. South Carolina’s rural communities may be losing population density, but there is no lack of water, land, fertile soils and abandoned warehouses. Couple those rural assets with an extremely long growing season, residents looking for employment and the increasing demand for local products, and you have a recipe for creating rural food and farm-based businesses and jobs.

The timing is perfect. Proponents of local food have placed a renewed value on the quality and freshness of food, its nutritional value and, most important to the topic at hand, the proximity of food to its source. The local food movement is here to stay. However, South Carolina has yet to tap into the full potential that this movement holds for rural economic development.

Our state’s strategy for financially supporting rural economies has been imperfect historically, but it is not irreversible. We are at an important crossroads in deciding where to place our resources and energy. The door is wide open for a new approach that leverages the changing economy and evolving consumer preferences to benefit rural communities.

We must seize the opportunity to make policy decisions and investments that will build and expand the local food system to accommodate the unsurpassed demand for local products. These investments have the potential to spawn private enterprise, create jobs and increase the tax base in rural areas where food products originate.

An example of this type of private investment is GrowFood Carolina, the state’s first local food hub. The Coastal Conservation League began this project with a simple goal of making local food production economically feasible. Last year, GrowFood returned more than $200,000 to the rural economy. By the year 2017, GrowFood Carolina will return an estimated $1.5 million to farmers, many of them located in the blighted areas highlighted in Pardue’s series. As GrowFood expands to serve more customers, farm and non-farm businesses, such as small-scale food processors and canners, will increase to support its operations. Many of these businesses will be housed in rural South Carolina.

However, GrowFood Carolina is not a standalone rural economic engine. It is an example of one component of the overall food system that public agencies, individuals, businesses, entrepreneurs, nonprofits and elected officials must fully support and expand to advance the goal of rural economic development.

Just as our state woos large industries from “off,” it should consider similar investments in local communities and small businesses. Grants and low-interest loans to local food and farm businesses would provide capital needed to catalyze rural activity, such as scaling up small farms, retrofitting industrial space for food businesses, establishing food aggregation centers or building meat processing facilities.

Through focused investment in agriculture, our state can take advantage of existing assets at a time when there is more emphasis than ever on local food production. Intentionally linking rural economies to thriving metropolitan areas through food is a vital piece of empowering rural communities. The rural-urban link ultimately provides rural areas, like the I-95 Corridor and Mill Crescent, with a stronger tax base for better schools, new and innovative fresh food programs for better health, and better infrastructure for elevated economic opportunities.

Lisa Turansky is director of the Coastal Conservation League’s Sustainable Agriculture Program.