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Food for all: Innovative food service organizations fill Charleston’s food desert gaps

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The Green Heart Project uses urban gardens at area elementary schools to introduce students to new foods. (Photo/provided)

By Holly Fisher
Contributing Writer

All Pat Walker, president and CEO of Lowcountry Food Bank, has to do is look outside her office on Azalea Drive in North Charleston to see food inaccessibility. The nearest grocery store is a bridge away.

When people don’t have cars and they don’t have a neighborhood grocery store, they shop at the closet place, usually a convenience store, Walker said.

Green Heart Project volunteers help elementary students grown urban gardens at school to introduce them to new foods. (Photo/provided)A place most people grab a cup of coffee or an afternoon candy bar, those living in Charleston’s food deserts are trying to feed their families at what they can purchase at the corner convenience store.

“There are almost no perishable foods,” Walker said. “Your food choices are generally not healthy food choices.”

The issue of food insecurity in pockets of the Charleston region is a significant issue. In September, residents of Charleston’s Eastside lost their grocery store when the Bi-Lo on Meeting Street closed, leaving peninsula residents with just two grocery store options.

Several areas of North Charleston are without a grocery store where residents can shop for meat, fruit and vegetables. It’s not only an inconvenience for the people who live in these food deserts, it also plays a large role in rising rates of chronic disease.

Lowcountry Food Bank serves 10 coastal South Carolina counties under the Feeding America umbrella. Walker said a Feeding America hunger study found that in the households the food bank serves, more than 40% have diabetes. The number grows to 70% when it comes to high blood pressure.

“The statistics are just incredible. There’s a growing body of research that connects food insecurity with diet-related illnesses — diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity,” Walker said. “In that case, a lot of times we believe people are just making poor choices because of a lack of access and education.”

So Lowcountry Food Bank and other organizations are stepping in to address both.

Of the 26 million pounds of food the Lowcountry Food Bank will distribute this year, about 25% of that will be fresh produce. Working with local farmers as much as possible, the food bank is distributing fruits and vegetables through its Fresh For All program. Like a pop-up farmers market, the program brings free produce into low-income neighborhoods.

Follow the recipe

But access is only part of the solution. It won’t do people any good if they go home with an eggplant or butternut squash but have no idea how to cook it. So the food bank’s Cooking Matters classes demonstrate how to prepare healthy recipes, how to substitute unhealthy ingredients for healthy ones and how to cook unfamiliar produce.

The Green Heart Project has five raised beds in a garden at Mitchell Elementary School in downtown Charleston. The organization has grown to five schools, four of which serve low-income students. (Photo/provided)

For Drew Harrison, the idea is to start with children. As the executive director of the Green Heart Project, he’s using urban gardens at area elementary schools to introduce students to new foods. The organization launched in 2009 with five raised beds in a garden at Mitchell Elementary School in downtown Charleston. It’s grown to five schools, four of which serve low-income students.

“Our main mission is to educate kids about healthy food through gardening,” Harrison said. “The more you can get students out in the garden and learning about healthy, whole foods and get them involved in the process, the more excited they are to try it.”

The students also learn math and science concepts in the gardens – how to measure the pH of the soil, tracking the height of plants and calculating the square footage of the garden to determine how many plants will fit.

Green Heart Project also works with the Lowcountry Food Bank’s Cooking Matters program so students can learn how to prepare a meal with their families. Harrison said this problem is so big it takes multiple organizations and partnerships to fight this uphill battle.

“What keeps me involved is when I see the lightbulb go off and I see the paradigm shift in kids when it comes to healthy food,” he said. “At first they are timid to take something they picked off a plant and put it in their mouth. By the end of the year, they’re so excited and amped to try anything in the garden, you almost have to change the rules of the garden: you can’t eat everything that’s green.”

While the Green Heart Project is largely focused on education, other organizations are helping get food into kitchens.

A new grocery store model

Fresh Future Farm, started by Germaine Jenkins, is an urban farm and grocery store in North Charleston’s Chicora-Cherokee community.

Lowcountry Street Grocery is a mobile grocery store and farmers market that will make regular stops at areas all around Charleston. Kate DeWitt, associate director, launched the company with her business partner, Lindsey Barrow Jr. Initially, they raised $47,000 on Kickstarter — enough to convert a 1988 school bus into a small grocery store.

Lowcountry Street Grocery is a mobile grocery store and farmers market that will make regular stops in Charleston. (Photo/provided)

The bus will travel around Mount Pleasant, Charleston, Summerville and West Ashley, with 40% of the route in underserved or low-income areas. Customers there will pay on a sliding scale.

“We will set pricing based on the median income of the stop that day,” DeWitt said, noting they also will be able to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).

Other, more affluent areas will pay the set pricing, which will be competitive with farmers markets, DeWitt explained. This model allows Lowcountry Street Grocery to be a viable business.

“Food deserts are food deserts because of the kinds of food outlets they can attract and they can’t attract,” she said. “We wanted to create a grocery store that could remain viable even in areas that have trouble attracting good, healthy outlets. The only way to have that flexibility is to offer (the service) to other target markets.”

Lowcountry Street Grocery is accepting route applications on its website, and DeWitt said the business should be fully operational in 2017.

Each organization is coming to the table with a slightly different approach in how to address this one common issue of food insecurity.

“We see a role for a multi-sector collective impact,” DeWitt said. “People are saying they are not going to stand for this in the community. We all have our roles to play. Ours is creating a better food environment. Every time we have a bus stop on the Eastside or in Chicora, for that time, we’ve created a better food environment and it’s not a food desert for those few hours.” 

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