Neighborhood residents that walk by Fresh Future Farm still call it a garden. That perception will change when they add livestock, founder Germaine Jenkins said. For now, even those neighbors who grew up on rural farms stop and admire the crops raised through this urban farming initiative in North Charleston, S.C.
“They say, ‘That’s some good looking okra,’” Jenkins said. “People had seen what we did at a community garden. That was one-eighth of an acre. This is almost a whole acre. Seeing it grow on a larger scale is powerful.”
Jenkins and the city of North Charleston hope that power extends to revitalizing a neighborhood situated in a food desert – an area that lacks easy access to affordable and high-quality food like fresh fruits and vegetables.
In urban farming efforts across the country, fresh food enthusiasts and activists work to address nutrition and hunger, especially in low-income urban areas, where fast food is often easier to come by.
The cost of food
Experts say city dwellers suffer most from high food prices. Often, households respond to high prices by switching to cheaper food. That impacts nutrition. That’s the story in Jenkins’ community. The nearest grocery store is more expensive and has fewer high-quality options than stores farther away in the suburbs.
“It’s expensive to live in an underdeveloped neighborhood,” she said.
In the U.S., the rate of households with inconsistent access to food – called food insecurity – hasn’t changed much since 2011. In 2014, 14 percent of households were food insecure, according to new figures by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Households experiencing low food security report changing what they eat out of necessity, sacrificing quality and variety but maybe not going without. Households experiencing very low food security report going without food on multiple occasions.
Urban farming can help address food access problems by making more nutritionally rich and varied food directly available to community members, Alberto Zezza, an economist at the World Bank, concluded in a study of urban farming in developing countries.
Fresh Future Farm fills a gap in the community it serves – Charleston Heights, said Ryan Johnson, public relations coordinator for the city. The city has tried to recruit a grocery store to the area, going as far as purchasing and demolishing an abandoned grocery store and and converting it to green space so that it’s ready to be redeveloped.
“We’ve contacted everyone you can imagine,” Johnson said. “We just haven’t gotten anyone to bite yet.”
Starting an urban farm
Fresh Future Farm is a new initiative for North Charleston. It sits on more than three-quarters of an acre that was just a grassy piece of land a year ago.
Now “it actually looks like a farm,” Jenkins said.
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Volunteers have been weeding and harvesting fresh food all year and donating it to seniors and families in the neighborhood. Jenkins also takes produce to Destiny Community Cafe, a pay-what-you-can restaurant near the farm with the same desire to make quality food affordable to neighbors.
Jenkins will start selling out of a store at the farm as soon as she can accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and other food assistance programs. She hopes that will start in the next couple of weeks.
“I’m not going to sell until we have the equipment to take food stamps. I won’t turn anyone away,” she said.
The farm is situated strategically in the neighborhood near a community center and the future site of an elementary school. It has potential to attract a lot of foot traffic.
“A healthy community is a walking community,” Jenkins said.
To Jenkins, growing food is empowering. When she moved to Charleston as a single mother to attend culinary school, she often relied on food banks to help her feed her family. She regularly brought home food she didn’t want to feed her children, she said. She decided then that she’d grown her own food as soon as she could.
The opportunity came seven years later after she’d finished school and married. She and her husband bought their first house in North Charleston in 2007, minutes away from the farm. Jenkins took a course to become a master gardener. Then, they dug up all their grass and turned their yard into a homestead that included chickens.
“I harvested better lettuce than I could buy at the grocery store,” she said.
Experience in her own garden led to opportunities to raise food for the public, including a job with Community Development Corp., to manage a community garden that has reached families for four years. It all led to the idea to start Fresh Future Farm.
She thinks developing the neighborhood means more than just good food. She hopes to hire workers from within the community, and wants Fresh Future Farm to become an incubator of sorts, training people in entrepreneurship, farming, and permaculture advocacy so they can start urban farms of their own.
A lot of steps sit between Jenkins and the farm she envisions with livestock, a store, hired workers, and a training center. Roadblocks like the delay of equipment to accept food assistance programs frustrate her, but she focuses on the milestones. She talks about a 19-year-old volunteer from the neighborhood who has watched plants come up from seeds until they’re taller than him. In that time, he’s learned as much about permaculture as Jenkins and is teaching it to the friends he brings to the farm to work.
“There’s always something that encourages you to keep going,” she said.
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Photos courtesy of Germaine Jenkins, Fresh Future Farm