South Carolina

How one SC woman is creating an oasis in a food desert

More than 20 years ago, the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood of North Charleston could boast of its history. The bustling community was home to the brick mason who built St. Matthew’s Church in Charleston, the Coburg Dairy (now Borden) started in the area, and the Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard, which employed many nearby residents.

Those days are gone.

Since the official closing of the Naval Base in 1996, the neighborhood has fallen into decline as people and businesses have moved out. Where once you could find the post office and grocery stores, there are warehouses and scrap yards.

With the departure of big name grocery stores, the area has been declared a food desert – defined by the USDA as a low-income community of at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population residing more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. Residents of these communities usually do not have personal automobiles and must rely on public transportation. It’s often the case that people in a food desert usually subsist on poor diets that can contribute to higher levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

It’s an issue in many communities around South Carolina. In the Midlands, for example, 2015 USDA figures showed an estimated 25,133 people in Richland County and 5,762 in Lexington County living in designated food deserts. Several Midlands organizations, including Sustainable Midlands, are giving attention to the issue.

RELATED: Do you live in a food desert? See the interactive map

But in this North Charleston community – where the nearest grocery store is a Save-A-Lot more than two miles away and a 20-minute bus ride – one woman is doing her part to bring fresh and healthy foods to Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood residents.

Creating an oasis

On what was once a vacant lot behind Chicora Graded School – on Success Street – Germaine Jenkins is planting the seeds of hope and sustainability with Fresh Future Farm, a 0.81 acre, no-till organic farm growing fresh fruits and vegetables and providing fresh honey and eggs directly to the community.

Originally from Hartsville, Jenkins came to Charleston by way of Cleveland, where her father had a scholarship to attend school in Ohio. She started attending Johnson & Wales Cooking School in Charleston in 2000 because, she said, “I wanted to learn how to bake bread.”

Shortly after graduating, Jenkins, then a young single mother with two children, took a work-study job prepping meals at her children’s daycare center so she could spend more time with them. Even though she was making a living, Jenkins still needed EBT and SNAP assistance to make ends meet.

“I was good at stretches, but still had to get in line at the food pantry. That’s when I started to grown my own food,” she said. Jenkins does not come from a farming background – she is the first in her family to turn to growing food as a career – and she did that after she turned 30.

Her yard became a conversation piece within the community and Jenkins began giving away vegetables to her neighbors. Recently remarried, she was also homeschooling her son and posting on the web her solutions to homesteading: growing, recycling and composting.

Her love of giving back to the community through food is part of her. For a while, she worked at the nearby food bank and volunteered at the Chicora Elementary School children’s garden. She also helped develop the neighborhood’s community garden as a place for everyone to grow and harvest fresh vegetables.

She sat on the board of Metanoia, a faith-based holistic community development group originating in North Charleston that seeks to use the people and assets already existing in the community to rebuild or build up assets and solve problems. Affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina, the word “metanoia” means “to make a positive transformation” of the heart and mind to better our lives and society. She has trained in community economic development, neighborhood revitalization and other areas.

In 2014, Jenkins obtained her commercial urban agriculture certification, and she launched Fresh Future Farm as a 501c3 non-profit in September 2014. The retail store, selling basic needs groceries as well as farm fresh produce, followed last May.

Jenkins wants Fresh Future Farm to be and anchor for the Chicora-Cherokee community, a gathering space for health education, cooking and gardening classes. She envisions adding a teaching pavilion where high school students can help with cooking classes, and a high-tunnel passive greenhouse that will extend the growing season of certain plants and will house an aquiculture system featuring some sort of fish (tilapia, perch or catfish) that can be sold fresh.

Trying to insure the future of Fresh Future Farm, Jenkins has approached the city of North Charleston in the hopes of extending the lease on the land past 2019 with an option to buy. She realizes that her neighborhood alone won’t be enough to sustain the farm so the farm store is open to anyone wanting fresh eggs, and in-season vegetables and fruits. There’s also a “wish list” that Jenkins has put together of items that she would like to add to the farm. Items include a USDA Certified mobile kitchen – where Jenkins could use to prepare fresh and frozen culturally relevant dinners, such as fish head stew, okra soup, red rice, mixed greens and conch stew, for resale; solar panels for the planned teaching pavilion; an outdoor hand wash station; and general office supplies.

RELATED: Columbia’s Community Gardens

If Fresh Future can thrive, it will become a model that can be duplicated elsewhere.

Already, other cities and towns are looking to community gardens and urban farms as a way to alleviate the problems connected with living in a food desert and to bring communities together. While Columbia has some areas designated as food deserts, the locally known City Roots Urban Farm is not located within one. And though Jenkins looked at the success of City Roots while creating the business model for Fresh Future Farm, the main difference is the non-profit status of Fresh Future versus the for-profit business of City Roots.

About this series

Grown Here is an occasional series celebrating and introducing readers to South Carolina folks who grow and produce the food that we eat.

Fresh Future Farm

▪ The farm store is open to everyone 10 am.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at 2008 Success St., North Charleston..

▪  Like to volunteer in the garden? Volunteers are much appreciated, 9 a.m.-noon the third Saturday monthly.

▪ The wish list is broken down in to three categories: Farm Store Club, for office and labeling supplies; Let’s Get Cookin’ Club, for commercial kitchen equipment and internships; and Urban Farm Charm Club, for outdoor equipment, maintenance and signage. Donations to the farm can be made online at freshfuturefarm.org

▪ To learn more: Retail store, (843) 276-8552; www.freshfuturefarm.org

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