I've always had an affinity for local markets.
There's something so special about farmers markets, urban bodegas, country farm stands, tiendas, and the ubiquitous independent markets that used to dot the U.S. They ooze hope, community, and authenticity: handwritten signs, snoozing store cats, heavily trodden linoleum floors.
At local markets, the seasonal produce is restocked multiple times a day; eggs aren't packaged in dyed styrofoam; and you won't be deceived by corporate terms like "cage-free," "farm-fresh," "free range," "naturally smoked," "vegetarian-fed," "naturally-sweetened," and dare I say, "organic."
All of these terms are weaponized to make you feel that you're choosing happy and healthy. Remember when plastic margarine was better than butter? Whoops. Organic? Yeah. Be careful with that one too. Here's a simple rule of thumb. Local first. Certification second.
Let's take Lowcountry Street Grocery (LSG) for example. In a few words, LSG is a sliding-scale mobile farmers market hellbent on improving our local food system and actively focusing on food equity and nutrition education.
Happy and healthy starts within the community. Supporting your local food economy first and foremost reduces your family's exposure to harmful chemicals, dependence on natural resources, and shifts money directly to your neighbors rather than a few billionaires 900 miles away.
Why is local produce better for you than the "organic" stuff from south of the border? It's all about food miles and nutrient-density. As a country, we import more than half of our fresh fruit and one-third of our fresh vegetables, and with that increase in availability, folks now eat far less of what is available in season in our own backyard.
Produce grown in the southern hemisphere shipped here to satisfy our year-round demand spends up to several weeks in transit, up to five days on store shelves, and then sits in consumers' fridges for up to a week before consumption. That means that those mid-winter berries from Honduras have most likely lost at least 50 percent of their Vitamin C by the time they're eaten.
Think about this: 70 percent of your money spent at a local business stays within the community while 60 percent of your money spent at non-local businesses heads out. True cost accounting proves that there is no such thing as free or "cheap" food. Unlike food sourced directly from local farmers and producers, the true cost of cheap food is hidden. It's not displayed at the register or on your receipt. You'll likely pay for it later on in life while low-wage workers and Mama Earth pay for it now.
Along with Freeman Farms, LSG is the only regional organization that goes beyond accepting SNAP/EBT purchases by incentivizing them through a program called Healthy Bucks. In order to grow and expand our modes of delivery we've diversified and started a local delivery service called Community Supported Grocery. We've also created a free fruit and vegetable prescription program called GroceryRx that partners with community centers and physicians at local clinics to proactively address diet-related illness via nutrition education and onsite markets.
In the almost three years we've been in business, we've helped 25 local farmers and producers start wholesale accounts. We've helped launch 12 first-time business accounts. We've sold over $200,000 of fruits and vegetables in USDA-defined "food deserts" without assistance from grants, donations, or fundraisers.
We work from the ground up and most importantly we listen. We don't advertise "local" and/or "organic" because they're assumed. Instead, we point out commodity/conventional items. We sell mulberries, loquats, and citrus foraged by neighborhood kids and pay them cash money in return. We answer daily texts about storing honey, refrigerating beets, cooking chard and turnip greens, and what the H is a sunchoke?
We barter with local businesses and offer up discounted "ugly" produce and compost to chefs, kitchens, and friends. We carry groceries across busy intersections and into the homes and kitchens of elders. How do we do that? Simple. We're a nimble independent market for the people, by the people. Rather than prioritizing marketing analyses, overly ambitious top-down bylaws, or corporate projections we prioritize our community first. That's "how things used to be" and we're hopeful to make it that way again. Except this time, for everyone.
I love Charleston. But I think it's high time we lay the accolades to rest for a bit and focus inward on our community. Ugh, that term, community. Unfortunately, it's become an insubstantial buzzword but what is it, truly? To us, it means, we have your back and you have ours. Community and food don't intersect as much as they run parallel, coexisting with one another. We don't live or eat in a vacuum. We eat with friends and family, we eat with strangers, we eat with our emotions, and we eat with our pride. We spend days and nights cooking one meal, we frame recipes that our ancestors made, we comfort those we love with food. It's heritage, it's culture, it's expression of adoration. It's everything.
Lindsey Barrow is the founder and director of Lowcountry Street Grocery.