Building a half-acre urban farm nestled in the heart of downtown Charleston from the ground up isn’t an easy undertaking under normal circumstances. Doing so in an ongoing global pandemic has proven to be even more challenging.
The transition hasn’t been an easy one.
Everything from volunteer opportunities to educational programming at the Green Heart Project has needed to be re-imagined or altered in order to fit the ever-changing demands of the coronavirus.
"It has been a shift for us," said Green Heart Executive Director Jesse Blom.
The local nonprofit broke ground on its largest project to date this summer, a new urban farm space at the William Enston Home, an affordable housing complex at King and Huger streets.
Once completed, the garden will effectively double the size of the Green Heart Project’s entire operation.
The farm was expected to break ground in November, but permitting and construction hurdles meant the timeline was delayed.
"Once we finally got our permits in place, that was right when the quarantine hit in the middle of march. It took us another two or three months to figure out how we would safely approach construction," Blom said.
When volunteers report to a building shift, they immediately have their temperature taken. They’re required to wear masks, and tool sharing is kept to a minimum. Social distancing is adhered to if possible.
"We're used to building garden beds with volunteers. That's how we've always done it since 2009 and that's how we're doing it now," Blom said. "But obviously with the COVID situation, it looks different than it usually does."
Typically, the project aims to have anywhere between 20 and 30 volunteers sign up at a time for scheduled building shifts. Now, volunteer shifts are capped at 15 people, Blom said.
Complicating things further: The average Green Heart garden usually needs volunteers to construct around five to 10 raised garden beds. The Enston Home’s urban farm consists of a gravel walking path, a produce stand, an outdoor pavilion and 64 raised garden beds.
"Working with smaller groups of volunteers has certainly added to the amount of time that it takes to do the work," Blom said. "We've had to reassign a lot of our staff from their usual duties now to help with garden bed construction, and it's been a really great team effort."
Due to the scale of the Enston Home project, Green Heart partnered with James White Construction, Mashburn Construction and Yellowstone Landscape to help establish irrigation systems, install electrical and plumbing lines and lay the gravel foundation for the garden.
"It’s amazing to me how big the program has grown in the past 11 years," said Gary Collins, managing principal at SeamonWhiteside, a civil engineering firm that's overseen the urban farm design since it was first conceptualized in 2017. "It’s critical that we continue to do these things because it does affect every level of community."
The farm will help fulfill a vision that William Enston, a successful Charleston businessman, laid out in his will more than a century ago, when the wealthy benefactor left behind part of his fortune to construct group housing for elderly residents. Enston asked that the cottages be placed with sufficient land around them for gardens to be built in order to keep the residents busy and occupied, Blom said.
Enston donated the property to the city in the 1800s, he said, and the Charleston Housing Authority leased the land for the urban garden to the Green Heart Project for free.
"Here we are, 135 years later completing the will of this gentleman," Blom said.
The Green Heart Project started as a small school garden at Mitchell Elementary School on the peninsula. Most Mitchell students come from low-income households that often lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The project aimed to help change that.
The project has since expanded to include more than a dozen schools across Charleston County.
The Urban Farm at Enston Home is expected to be completed in time for the start of school in mid-September.
Students from the Charleston Catholic School, James Simons Elementary, and the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science will have the opportunity to plant lettuce, turnips, radishes and spinach in the fall and harvest them in time for an annual Thanksgiving meal.
All food grown through the project is used as part of classroom lessons, donated to students’ families, donated to school cafeterias for use in the lunch line or sold via a pay-what-you-can sliding scale farm stand.
The farm stand has already been running throughout the summer, Blom said. Every Thursday evening, residents of the Enston Home and other community members can purchase fresh, locally grown produce.
"Especially during this time where people are enduring more economic hardship than usual, it’s important for us to have a place that folks can access the healthy food that they need in order to be healthy people," Blom said.
The area where the new urban farm is located is known as a "food desert," federally designated low-income areas without access to a full-service grocery store.
For many families, access to healthy produce has become even more of an obstacle amid nationwide economic stress and unemployment, he said.
"To have a neighborhood like this where they can access food in an affordable way is just, I think, a really key complement to this particular community," Blom said.
In addition to changing its garden volunteer operations, the Green Heart Project has also adjusted how it offers instructional programming for the students and families it serves.
The project usually assists students with hands-on gardening lessons throughout the school year via the small gardens planted outside their schools.
But when schools closed in mid-March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the project needed to shift its curriculum online.
"This is new territory for us in the education field, needing to transition learning to a virtual setting. We really piloted that in the spring, but we’ll continue it this fall," said Amanda Howell, program director at the Green Heart Project.
As a result, the nonprofit launched its "Green Heart at Home" initiative this spring. The curriculum included videos, hands-on activities such as scavenger hunts and interactive worksheets.
"There are silver linings to this, and it has been a blessing in some ways," she said. "We’re excited to use this as an opportunity to make our programming more accessible."
The project also adjusted its inaugural youth internship program, which launched this summer, to operate using a hybrid model.
Interns met in the morning for "outdoor, COVID-safe learning," Howell said. They had a break for lunch and then resumed their studies from home online, where they received lessons on everything from healthy living to career preparedness.
The nonprofit will use the lessons it learned this spring when schools reopen in a few weeks, she said. Much like it did over the summer, Green Heart is planning to offer in-person, outdoor gardening lessons for small groups of students this fall.
"We’re just really excited to be able to offer the outdoor, hands-on programming during a time when access to healthy food, access to hands-on experiential learning opportunities, and really just the interpersonal connection, is needed now more than ever during the pandemic," she said.