"It's malabar spinach. It's delicious," said Germaine Jenkins, pausing on her walk through the Chicora Place Community Garden to snap a small green leaf off its vine and take a bite.
The North Charleston garden turned 3 years old this month, and Jenkins is proud of its success as a neighborhood project. But her sights are now set on her latest vision, Fresh Future Farm, which could be taking shape a few blocks north of the garden by this winter.
The idea is simple. Jenkins, a certified master gardener, wants to establish a nonprofit urban farm on 0.75 acres of the grounds of the former Chicora Elementary School on Success Street. It would be more than just a place to grow and buy fruits and vegetables: It would be an entire community food operation, with an on-site store to sell produce, toiletries and other groceries. School groups and residents could come to tour the facilities or take classes on farming, cooking and the food industry, and underemployed people in the area could be trained on the skills they'd need to work on the farm or start their own.
In these ways, Jenkins hopes the enterprise could be much more than a farm. It would be a much-need oasis in one of the Lowcountry's numerous food deserts - areas with a lack of grocery stores and large number of residents without cars.
The North Charleston Finance Committee approved the use of the Success Street site for the project in June, a month after Germaine won the South Carolina Community Loan Fund's Feeding Innovation Challenge and the $25,000 in seed money that came with it.
"I saw in several really good examples in Detroit and other places how they were using urban agriculture as a way to revitalize neighborhoods," Jenkins said. "Taking what was discarded materials to create profits in an urban environment is something we need because not only is this a food desert, but it's an employment desert, it's a place desert."
Those labels go hand-in-hand. Low-income areas struggle to attract and keep grocery stores, who don't perceive the customer bases as profitable markets. Residents must then choose to drive miles to the nearest supermarket or spend their money at convenience stores, where options - especially healthy options - are limited.
"What's made it a challenge in our community is that because there are no fresh fruits and vegetables in the 5-mile radius where we are, it becomes a question of people's ability to drive that distance, and many of the people don't have cars," said Barbara Kingsbury, director of resource development for Metanoia, the community development organization that funds the Chicora Place Community Garden. "Their trip to the grocery store involves either a cab, which adds to the cost, or public transportation, which turns a routine trip to the store into a three- or four-hour ordeal."
A nearby corner, at Rivers and McMillan avenues, has been struggling to fill a vacant supermarket spot for around a decade, she said.
When fresh produce is this difficult to get, getting people to change their attitudes toward fruits and vegetables is a big hurdles in efforts like urban farming, said David Hughes, state Economic and Community Development program team leader with Clemson Cooperative Extension.
"Local foods and community gardens are part of the solution to that, but they're just part of it," he said. "They've got to make changes in lifestyle - people taking control of their own cooking, really."
There are many vacant lots in North Charleston and Charleston, Jenkins pointed out, and she hopes Fresh Future Farm is the first of many to use them agriculturally.
"To close the loop, I'd love to be able to then buy products from some of those other farmers in the neighborhood, that we can then turn around and sell through our store," she said. "So, we earn a dollar, and that dollar stays in the neighborhood. That's what we're trying to do."
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