On a steamy afternoon in mid-April, stepping into the expansive 800-square-foot cooler at GrowFood Carolina's Morrison Drive warehouse is positively refreshing. But it's not just the invigorating temperature drop to 46 degrees Fahrenheit that awakens the senses. Around the space, crates of aromatic strawberries, greens, and squash are set to be shipped to area restaurants.
"Nothing stays in the cooler for more than a couple of days," explains General Manager Sara Clow. "That's the beauty of local — it's healthier, there's a smaller carbon footprint, and people will eat more fruits and vegetables because they're fresh and they taste better. It makes sense on so many levels."
Not long ago, GrowFood was just a bright idea by environmental advocacy non-profit the Coastal Conservation League, designed to provide a missing link between farmers within 120 miles of Charleston and restaurants seeking a reliable source of local produce. Just a year after the concept went public, it's not uncommon to find local chefs at the warehouse on any given morning, picking out produce and chatting with farmers who are dropping off their harvest.
It's a professional but casual affair. Purchase orders are often as simple as a text message from a farmer — "I've got 12 pounds of pea tendrils" — with Clow replying, "Bring it!" On the wall behind her desk, there's a handwritten wishlist, including rhubarb, sorghum, and garbanzo beans.
During City Paper's visit, Benton Montgomery, one of just three full-time employees, walked into Clow's office with a question about a case of kale and three crates of spinach.
"Is that for Husk?" he asked.
In just six months, GrowFood has already become an integral fixture in the kitchens of Charleston's finest restaurants. But a glance at the list of 25 farms already selling produce through GrowFood turns up names that may not be familiar even to local food connoisseurs in Charleston, including Walters Farm in St. George, Carolina Kiwi in Vance, and Brickyard Point Farms on Lady's Island.
Many farmers closer to Charleston already have relationships with local chefs, selling directly to restaurants. GrowFood closes the gap for smaller farmers farther out of town, for whom a multi-restaurant delivery route would not be feasible.
"A lot of these farmers couldn't drive around to 30 delivery points, but if they can drop 200 boxes in one spot, they can still reach local restaurants," says Kevin Johnson, chef and owner of the Grocery on Cannon Street, who visits the warehouse at least once a week to hand-pick pecans, strawberries, and Carolina Gold Rice from the cooler. "Without GrowFood, I would have never gotten these products, and the farmers would never have sold them in Charleston."
Based in Moncks Corner, Kurios Farms sold tomatoes and Bibb lettuce to scores of area restaurants before GrowFood opened, but now they've found an outlet for everything that's left over.
"My restaurants still get top priority, but anything that I have surplus I sell to GrowFood," says Wes Melling of Kurios Farms.
The exchange works strongly in the favor of farmers, thanks to GrowFood's status as a non-profit middleman, subsidized by grants and private donations (including the 6,500-square-foot warehouse, gifted by a donor and remodeled to LEED specifications). Utilizing a consignment model, GrowFood takes in produce and sells it to restaurants and grocery stores at the same rate a farmer might. On average, they keep a 20-percent operational cost, returning 80 percent directly to the farmer. It's a far-more-generous ratio than a typical for-profit distributor might offer.
"Food hubs provide infrastructure for small-to-midsize farms to be able to efficiently get their food into the local market," explains Clow, adding that GrowFood even purchases costly wax-lined produce boxes in bulk, allowing farmers to buy them at a much lower price than a smaller order. "It's infrastructure, from the cooler to the truck to marketing to additional insurance — things that a lot of farmers on their own wouldn't be able to have. We make local easy."
In addition to restaurants, GrowFood already sells directly to Whole Foods. Piggly Wiggly helped design the warehouse's cooler and hopes to begin making regular orders once GrowFood's intake reaches a consistently higher capacity. Plans are also in the works with Harris Teeter, Earth Fare, and the College of Charleston and MUSC cafeterias. GrowFood made its first farm-to-school delivery early this year, providing organic kiwis from Vance, S.C. to Lambs Elementary School in North Charleston.
"All of a sudden, if you're serving a potato from Wadmalaw Island versus a potato from Idaho, that's a huge deal," expresses Clow, pointing out that the average piece of produce in the U.S. travels 1,600 miles between its harvest and sale. "The writing is very much on the wall that the way produce works right now in this country is not sustainable."
In mid-April, Clow flew to Chicago for a gathering of food-hub coordinators from across the country. About 100 exist, but GrowFood Carolina is the first and only hub in South Carolina. The USDA has taken notice of this growing trend, issuing official support and helping provide resources to improve the funneling of grant money intended for small farmers.
GrowFood's status as a non-profit enables it to sow seeds of change throughout the Lowcountry's farming and food communities without worrying (too much) about the bottom line. CCL's impetus for the project, in fact, began with a desire to promote land preservation via farming and to rebuild the rural economy of the state.
Farms over an hour away now have a direct line to Charleston chefs. That impact is underscored by the weekly list, with prices, of what GrowFood has in stock that Clow sends to over 250 recipients. Seeing the significant markup on organic produce has already encouraged a few conventional farmers to start experimenting with chemical-free growing.
On the consumer side, because there are no hefty minimum orders, even tiny restaurants can participate. Food trucks regularly stop by GrowFood to grab a box of produce that they'll serve within hours. Even restaurants that already have relationships with a handful of local farmers have been able to increase their diversity, bringing in new ingredients that weren't yet available from their direct farm suppliers.
Outside the GrowFood warehouse, two vermiculture (worm compost) bins are currently churning up fresh soil, destined to be spread across two long raised beds planned for planting by summer's end. Although GrowFood sells to businesses, not direct consumers, the garden and a colorful mural by artist David Boatwright along Morrison Drive are attracting onlookers from the neighborhood who stop in to learn about the group's mission.
Which, really, is simply about eating well and taking pride in where your supper comes from.
GrowFood will host the Dirt Fair Kick-Off Cook-Off on Fri. April 27 from 4-8 p.m. Local chefs and culinary students will create dishes using local ingredients from the food hub. Tickets are $20. Visit dirtfair.com.