We all know we should eat healthy. Healthy eating equals healthy people. It's a pretty simple equation. And in a state like South Carolina, with a 21.5 percent childhood obesity rate, according to stateofobesity.org, it's even more obvious that healthy nutrition is critical to kids. But getting fresh produce to the lunchroom isn't always easy. That's why Olivia Thompson, a College of Charleston public health professor and director of the Boeing-sponsored farm-to-school program, partnered with Clemson Cooperative Extension's Harry Crissy to create Crop Stop — the first low-cost commercial kitchen of its kind.
At 600-square-feet, the first iteration of the project — Crop Stop 1, a.k.a. Johns Island Crop Stop — is now up and running as a place for farmers to process and package produce in an economically viable way.
Basically, it's an all-produce kitchen. The freezer has low crystallization, which means farmers can flash freeze vegetables like June-ripe tomatoes for the start of an August school year. Crop Stop has small appliances, a three-compartment sink, a walk-in cooler, a conduction oven, and a honey-spinner. Crissy explains that the Crop Stop crew is talking to local farmers and figuring out what they need and what kinds of tools will work best for this particular location.
The Crop Stop model was based on commercial kitchens that typically cost up to $1 million to build and service an area of up to 150 miles. But without that kind of cash, Crissy approached David Pastre, head of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston to see if his students could replicate such a kitchen on a smaller budget. How much smaller? Pastre says that Crop Stop 1 cost about $60,000 to build, with $30,000 of that budget going toward kitchen appliances. Labor costs were free thanks to the sweat equity of the 20 students in the program.
Crop Stop 1 is located at Sweetgrass Gardens, a local nonprofit farm which donates 95 percent of the food it produces. The location is ideal for farmers to bring their produce straight from the farm to the kitchen — vital factors in the farming world. "At a farmers market, farmers may sell only 40-50 percent of their product. The rest could just rot [before being used]," says Pastre. Crop Stops, though, help prolong the period of time a farmer can sell his products. "It solves a bigger issue," says Pastre. While Crop Stop was designed to help with farm-to-school initiatives, it is also just a practical model for farmers everywhere to use.
Before you can understand the full impact of Crop Stop, you have to understand the people behind it. In 2012 CofC received a grant from Boeing to develop the farm-to-school initiative. Farm to school is what it sounds like — a movement to get more local farm products into the local school system and incorporate them through education initiatives like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Teachers will incorporate lessons into school gardens, use "cooking matters" (a class that teaches families how to shop and cook on a budget), and a farm-to-school cookbook written for school districts that follows USDA guidelines and shows food service workers how to cook with fresh, local ingredients.
The farm-to-school initiative went statewide in 2015, and Crop Stop is going to be a big part of helping accomplish its goals.
Clemson Cooperative Extension (commonly referred to as Clemson Extension) is part of the national cooperative extension service, a program that engages citizens to improve their local economy and quality of life by providing them with research about agriculture, natural resources, food safety, nutrition, and community development. While Clemson's goals are broadly focused, Crop Stop itself was created with a very particular intention: to get low-cost commercial kitchens into rural and/or poor areas.
"Dr. Thompson and I started talking about how to work together. We wanted to keep costs down and make the product available to farmers who can't afford [kitchens like this]," says Crissy.
A low-cost idea that translates across mediums? Crop Stop could be too good to be true. The thing is — it isn't. According to Thompson, Crop Stops can be strategically placed throughout the state of S.C., based on different areas needs. Quite simply, she says, "The sky's the limit."
Crop Stop 1 is built from what Pastre calls a "derelict trailer." The trailer was stripped down, and architecture students went to work building a kitchen around the remaining steel frame. The idea was to give the building mobility, Pastre says. "If a community invests in a Crop Stop and it doesn't work out, it can easily be shipped elsewhere," he says. For Crop Stop 2, the building wasn't built from a mobile home, but its frame can be picked up and moved by a trailer. This is one of several differences between the Crop Stop models. After evaluating Crop Stop 1, Pastre and his students decided that while the space was being efficiently utilized, the construction method needed work. "The design is very craftsman-like," says Pastre. "It takes a lot of time and patience which equates to time and money." Crop Stop 1 had the luxury of student labor, but Pastre wants this model to translate to all communities who may need it, and most will not have free labor. Crop Stop 2's design limits the necessity for skilled trade, which helps bring construction costs down. Pastre compares this design to the kit sets Sears and Roebucks offered at the turn of the century for pre-built homes. "This is a hybrid modernization of that idea," he says.
The Charleston build shop, located at 1 Simons St., currently houses parts of Crop Stop 2, the Crop Stop intended for Greenville, S.C. There jigsaw-like pieces fit together to make the whole thing work. Entering through the front doors, farmers will walk through a fairly small space that contains a hand-washing station, a convection oven, a sink under double windows, and perhaps the most important aspect for farmers — the flash freezer.
The architecture students are already thinking about Crop Stops 3, 4, and so on. The one in Greenville will be located next to an alternative school and will function as more of a teaching facility than a food processing kitchen. The stairs are tiered for teaching, and the porch is designed so that it can also hold things like farmers markets.
These kitchens are designed for small to mid-sized farmers who can't typically afford to use a commercial kitchen. How affordable is affordable? Crop Stop will cost about $5 or $6 to use, per hour. Most commercial kitchens cost $30 or $40 an hour to use.
A farmer can't just walk up to Crop Stop and expect to use the facilities immediately. After a day of training, he will be certified to work in that kitchen. Training only applies to the Crop Stop in which a farmer was trained — each new Crop Stop requires its own set of training — so farmers know that whoever they're working with knows what they're doing.
Thompson says that each Crop Stop can support 20-30 farmers, depending on how many hours people want to use it on a weekly basis. As director of the farm-to-school initiative, Thompson says Crop Stop can help schools accomplish healthy-food goals. "We want to see healthy foods get into schools. [There needs to be] an intervention to prevent and control childhood obesity." Crissy agrees. "We're creating opportunities for big dreamers and great products. We want entrepreneurs to flourish."
Because Crop Stop is part of the farm-to-school program, each farmer who uses the kitchen is required to sell a portion of their products to local schools. For smaller farmers who cannot produce enough volume to sell to schools, there's always the option of putting on educational programs for students.
Crop Stops, while practical and low cost, are a little bit revolutionary. Crissy is also a partner for rural America, and in a recent conference out in Wyoming he told some of his colleagues about South Carolina's new low-cost commercial kitchens. Their reaction? "Everyone's excited," says Crissy. He says that extension offices in other states and universities work closely and support each other's efforts, and that a lot of people are interested in Crop Stops of their own.
Pastre is happy to show architecture students the hands-on aspect of designing and building, especially when it comes to this kind of project. "They're figuring out, at a young age, that what they do can have a social impact," says Pastre. From farm to elementary, middle, and yes, even college-level school, Crop Stop is making a name for itself. Thompson's prediction appears accurate: the sky really is the limit.