When Germaine Jenkins talks about food deserts, she's doesn't recite USDA reports. She speaks from experience. "I found out the hard way that home ownership does not equal self-sufficiency," she says. "When I was living in public housing downtown next to Johnson & Wales, schools and grocery stores were right there. But you move to a less developed neighborhood, as I did in North Charleston, and all the stuff we need is outside the neighborhood. It makes no economic sense when I plan to live in this neighborhood as a long-term resident."
What Jenkins is talking about is the current situation facing 19,500 North Charleston residents who, as Paul Bowers reported in his 2011 story Unbalanced Diet, live in an area where picking up even basic food items involves often expensive long treks. In fact, North Charleston contains 11 census tracts that fit the criteria for food desert — an area where 20 percent live in poverty and are more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. But Jenkins is committed to changing that with Fresh Future Farm, a fully functioning urban garden and grocery in Chicora-Cherokee.
As it stands now, Fresh Future Farm is on the brink of becoming a reality. It just needs one more component to be fully functional — a van to transport area shoppers without vehicles to and from the farm and store. With the help of a fundraiser with Holy City Brewing on Sun. Jan. 24, Jenkins hopes to raise the money to get it.
At 2008 Success St., on a plot behind the old Chicora Elementary sits Fresh Future Farm. The idea is to provide locals with fresh produce grown in their own neighborhood. "Growing up, my mom had food stamps, but she also had a circle of friends and support system, so we were able to make it," Jenkins says of her childhood in Cleveland, Ohio. But it was a different story when Jenkins moved to Charleston and started attending Johnson & Wales for baking and food service management. "I didn't have that kind of support here," she says.
Even though Jenkins found housing in the projects next to the culinary school, her classes were in the afternoon until late at night, leaving her no time to work a job while caring for her two young children. In trying to make it on her own, she says she got to experience being broke first hand. "But I was determined that we would one day own our own house and learn to grow our own food," she says.
Jenkins began volunteering at the Lowcountry Food Banks' Kids Cafe. There her children got the full meals she couldn't provide and, in exchange, she began to learn more about nutrition. Jenkins used the opportunity to teach the kids about vegetables. "I started with stuff that the kids were eating, hiding vegetables everywhere I could," she says. "Then I'd say, 'You can earn a prize for guessing all the veggies in the spaghetti sauce.'"
LFB's former director Jermaine Husser saw Jenkins leading a Kids Cafe class and was impressed. He quickly offered her a position with the organization. Then Jenkins got involved with Metanoia, a nonprofit community development organization in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood. While serving on the board of Metanoia she says, "I learned the best practices of how other neighborhoods are able to revitalize and have done so using food as the vehicle for development."
Those plans might just be realized with Fresh Future Farm. On a 0.81 acre plot, master gardener Jenkins, along with permaculture expert Nick Tittle and strategic development consultant Todd Chas, have built the start of the garden. The ultimate goal is to have it fully planted by spring with blackberry bushes, apple, citrus, pear, and pecan trees, raised beds with lettuces, and chicken and duck coops. In the center will be a classroom to teach neighbors and volunteers growing techniques, like how to plant the bottoms of used root vegetables back into the soil for a second crop. When they open next month, the first available produce will be collards grown on the farm.
But the biggest problem facing North Charleston shoppers continues to be distance to fresh food. Save-A-Lot, which opened in 2010 at Rivers and Durant avenues, serves the Northern region of the North Charleston community, but it's still a 2.4 mile hike from the farm, where Fresh Future Farm is located. And while the Beach Company's proposed 217 unit apartment Garco Factory promises to build a grocery should enough tenets commit to the building, that won't happen until 2016 at the earliest and will also be a 2.7 miles from Chicora Cherokee — a long ways for residents using taxis, the bus, bikes, or, in many cases, simply on foot.
"At the beginning of each month when people get their food stamps, taxis start lining up around this neighborhood. But that's not a way to build wealth," says Jenkins. Instead, she hopes the van, which will give a free ride to Fresh Future Farm to any person without transportation within a two-mile radius who promises to spend at least $50, will help. "We'll accept SNAP on day one," Jenkins says. "The average income might be $1,200 for EBT, but this neighborhood spends $4 million on groceries each year. Park Circle spends $5 million. For people who don't have regular transportation, this is where you can come."
To help Fresh Future Farm raise the money for their van, attend the Vantastic Fundraiser on Sat. Jan. 24 from 12-4 p.m at Holy City Brewing (4155C Dorchester Road). Chef B.J. Dennis will be preparing meat and three plates with a choice of roasted pig, chimichurri pasta salad, collard greens, chicken rice, vegetarian soup bunch, and sweet potato bread (or 3 vegetarian sides) for a suggested donation of $8 a plate.