Germaine Jenkins and Fresh Future Farm have a long-term vision to expand beyond their home in North Charleston, but first they must buy the farm.
That's a task easier said than done for an upstart minority-and-female-led nonprofit, Jenkins said.
With tens of thousands of dollars in the bank from hundreds of supporters nationwide, Fresh Future Farm is still waiting to strike a deal.
Jenkins said the group's work to own the ground where they've put down roots would be symbolic, a point of pride in the low-income Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood where access to fresh food is scarce.
"I started with the goal that it's a model that can be replicated in other spaces. In North Charleston there's 11 other spaces that experience food apartheid," Jenkins said.
"Food apartheid" describes disparities between communities that border on injustice — the people who sign petitions for a new Whole Foods and the others forced to settle for another Family Dollar.
"They all should be able to access food and pay people that live in that community to sell it to them," she said.
But before all that, Fresh Future Farm has to buy their land.
On the Land
Fresh Future Farm has leased its property from the City of North Charleston since 2014. Beginning in 2017, Jenkins said she started discussions to permanently remain on the current 0.8-acre plot a block off Rivers and Reynolds avenues at the southern end of the city. Jenkins said she initially discussed terms with the city that would give her group control of the Fresh Future Farm property for up to 99 years, but no progress came from those discussions. Eventually, Jenkins said the city directed FFF to work with Metanoia, a community development nonprofit, which had plans for major investment to rehab adjacent properties, including the abandoned historic Chicora Elementary School.
The current plan has Metanoia buying the school property and nearby parcels that include the farm's property, and then subdividing and selling the farm to Jenkins' group. Delays and a fire at the old school in February have pushed back the group's purchase, now tentatively slated for late July.
A spokesman for the City of North Charleston did not respond to an inquiry about why Fresh Future Farm was not offered a chance to buy the property outright rather than through Metanoia.
But with $72,500 in the bank from a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, Jenkins is now concerned Metanoia's terms for the sale could suppress Fresh Future Farm's expansion and dash any hope she had for true ownership. According to both parties, discussed terms would sell the property to Fresh Future for about $45,000, but limit the use of the land and give Metanoia a first right of refusal to buy the property at 110 percent of what Fresh Future Farm pays for it, plus the value of any improvements.
"My worry is that we won't own it. That we'll pay good, backer money for land that's essentially like heirs property," Jenkins said, referring to the system of land transfer between generations of black families that often involves clouded questions about ownership. Other concerns include the impact of the restrictions on Fresh Future Farm's ability to borrow money and grow.
Jenkins said Metanoia has been "exploitative" of her group's work over the years and that she feels like she's getting the runaround.
"We get to a point where we have an opportunity to buy the land. We're given what the conditions are — how much it would cost — we raised the money. And there's just more hurdles, one after the next at every single step," Jenkins said.
Bill Stanfield, CEO of Metanoia, said his group's board wanted "some level of control" over what might happen if Fresh Future Farm was ever to relocate. "We have tried" to maintain a good relationship, Stanfield said, pointing to financial contributions and collaboration since the farm broke ground six years ago.
Still, improvements at the school that could potentially bring hundreds of people into the neighborhood could present an opportunity for the farm, Jenkins said, and they are committed to remain in Chicora-Cherokee.
Fresh Future Farm's challenges mirror roadblocks experienced by black female nonprofit leaders nationwide, Jenkins said. A study published in May by The Bridgespan Group that looked at nonprofit racial disparities showed black-led groups have smaller budgets, more restrictions on assets and less cash in emergency reserves. The study described access to unrestricted assets as a "holy grail" for groups like Fresh Future Farm.
"The unrestricted net assets of the black-led organizations are 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts," the study found. "The stark disparity in unrestricted assets is particularly startling as such funding often represents a proxy for trust."
Vanessa Daniel described her experience working with community groups seeking financial backing as the leader of the California-based Groundswell foundation in a New York Times op-ed last November.
"I've seen repeatedly that it's far easier for a young affluent white man who has studied poverty at Harvard to land a $1 million grant with a concept pitch than it is for a 40-something black woman with a decades-long record of wins in the impoverished community where she works to get a grant for $20,000," Daniel wrote. "She reads as risky, small, marginal. He reads as a sound investment, scalable, mainstream."
Jenkins said that while people in the Lowcountry have been generous, she has also felt that kind of discrimination and has had success working with national organizations for support in recent years.
"It's happened over and over and over again that we've been tokenized by dominant-culture philanthropy in Charleston," Jenkins said.
"Outside of the state, people celebrate our work, it's 'groundbreaking,' nobody's doing what we're doing," Jenkins said, pointing to her spot among Essence magazine's "Woke 100" last year. "And here I can't get $2,000 without signing my life away."
The Essence list also included former First Lady Michelle Obama, filmmaker Ava DuVernay and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her work on the Times' 1619 Project.
"It's easier to give positions of power and wealth to someone that looks like you, that thinks the same way you would and that would continue to maintain what the status quo already is," said Kennae Miller, a Fresh Future Farm board member.
Back to the Board
Before founding Fresh Future Farm, Jenkins served on the Metanoia board and bought her home as part of the group's project to provide attainable housing in a changing area of North Charleston. She also managed Metanoia's community garden. But in recent years, both parties agree their relationship has hit a rough patch.
Stanfield said he is hopeful that details can be worked out to have Fresh Future Farm remain on Success Street. Work to shore up the old school building and the deal to buy that property has required a "colossal" rethinking, he said.
"If we're able to get this across the finish line, while I don't know that our board can do everything that the farm may wish it to do, the board's goal is to have the farm remain. And we'll work with the farm to figure out how that might happen," Stanfield told the City Paper on June 11.
Attorney Ayesha Washington of Charleston is the former board chair for Metanoia and heads up a committee handling the sale to Fresh Future Farm.
"We're still hopeful," Washington said during a March interview. "Once we get past this fire at the school and we do take control of the property, we are still willing to work with them."
"I'm a black business owner and I'm a woman. There's no way I'm going to be on the side of championing someone to beat down another woman of color and a business owner. I'm not going to do that," said Washington.
Fresh Future Farm's current lease with the city runs through September. Under a "worst case scenario," if the two parties can't reach a deal before then, Stanfield said Metanoia has "zero intent to do anything other" than continue negotiations to keep the farm where it is.
But with more than 500 Kickstarter backers along with financial supporters nationwide awaiting a resolution from Fresh Future Farm, Jenkins said she can't help but see opportunities pass by as they hash out the deal almost a year later.
"It's just frustrating," Jenkins said, "Because we could do so much more if we had an asset that would help us turn some of these ideas into programs that could be funded that create positions that keep people in that neighborhood that's gentrifying at the speed of light right now."