NORTH CHARLESTON — Germaine Jenkins knows what it’s like for a family to need food assistance. And she’s acutely aware of the lack of quality produce available in many low-income neighborhoods.
It’s hard to thrive in life when your stomach is growling. It’s hard to find success when you’re not sure where the next meal is coming from.
When Jenkins moved with her two small children to Charleston in 2000, she took courses at Johnson & Wales University, which then maintained a campus in the East Side neighborhood, and she tried to find a job that fit her challenging schedule.
But flexible workplaces were few, and soon she and her kids were struggling.
“I was hyper-focused on (finding) family-friendly work, but also on how to find food,” she said.
But she forged ahead, securing an associate's degree in baking and pastry, and then a bachelor’s degree in food service management. After a while, she found a job as chef in the Kid’s Café at the Cannon Street YMCA. Leaders at the Lowcountry Food Bank got to know her and, in 2006, she took a position there as nutrition coordinator. In 2007, with help from the North Charleston community development corporation Metanoia, Jenkins bought a house in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood and started growing vegetables in her own garden.
Soon, she was thinking about “the gap” — those people who work full time but lack food security or access to healthy options, and can’t qualify for government programs.
Jenkins wanted to find a way to empower these people so they might take control of their health and nutrition.
She was gaining valuable experience working for Metanoia as its part-time community garden manager. In 2014, she landed a $25,000 grant thanks to the S.C. Community Loan Fund’s Feeding Innovation competition. This was her seed money for Fresh Future Farm.
Today, the nonprofit farm occupies a large lot next to the old Chicora Elementary School and employs a small team of gardeners and volunteers. There’s a store on site where people in the neighborhood can find fresh fruits and vegetables and pay according to a sliding scale.
This area is a food desert, so Jenkins encourages residents to learn to grow their own produce. She’s trying to, as she puts it, “vegucate people out of generational poverty.”
This neighborhood once was solidly middle class and predominantly White. It was where people employed by the old Navy Shipyard lived. Reynolds Avenue was a commercial street replete with clothing shops and restaurants. Grocery stores were well within reach.
After the shipyard closed in 1996, the area quickly transformed into a mostly Black, low-income neighborhood. The shops and grocery stores closed, leaving behind only fast-food restaurants and ill-supplied corner stores, which local residents increasingly relied on.
Jenkins believes this situation is fundamentally unfair. It denies people a basic quality of life, which includes food sovereignty — the right to healthy, sustainably produced and culturally appropriate foods.
“Fresh Future Farm is becoming what I needed when I was a single mom,” she said.
Jenkins was born in Hartsville, raised in Cleveland, then returned to South Carolina when she was 25. She’s worked hard to find stability in her life and to create a mechanism that can help others find stability.
The COVID pandemic forced her team to reduce the store’s business hours to two days a week. But she is compensating by delivering groceries and even offering limited financial assistance to families struggling to pay the rent or power bill.
She’s working on a subsidized ride-share program to provide more transportation options to the neighborhood. She’s starting up a coalition of Black farmers. And she’s gearing up to sell healthy prepared lunches for just a few dollars.
The enterprise is hyper-local, employing people in the neighborhood to provide residents of the neighborhood fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the neighborhood in order to foster more economic activity and healthy living in the neighborhood.
Now Jenkins is thinking about turning Fresh Future Farm into a cooperative, open to all, but offering members special benefits.
It might be hyper-local, but it sets an example for other communities to follow.