Statewide Network to Strengthen South Carolina’s Food Economy
An established group of leaders across South Carolina’s food system are launching a new network, Growing Local SC, to cultivate a thriving, equitable, inclusive, resilient, and just food economy providing access to healthy food for all. The Growing Local SC local food network is one of 30 national projects awarded funding through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Regional Food System Partnership Grant program. With ten project partners, matching funds from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, and project oversight from the South Carolina Food Policy Council, this highly collaborative and cross-sector network is a decade in the making.
Red Estatal Refuerza la Economía Alimentaria de Carolina del Sur
Todo el Estado – Un grupo de líderes establecidos a través del sistema alimentario de Carolina del Sur están lanzando una nueva red, Growing Local SC, para cultivar una economía alimentaria próspera, equitativa, inclusiva, resistente, y justa que le provee acceso a comida saludable a todos. La red local alimentaria Growing Local SC es uno de los 30 proyectos nacionales otorgados fondos a través del programa Regional Food System Partnership Grant del Departamento de Agricultura de Estados Unidos. Con diez organizaciones asociadas en el proyecto, fondos complementarios del Departamento de Agricultura de Carolina del Sur, y fiscalización por el South Carolina Food Policy Council, esta red intersectorial se ha desarrollado a través de una década.
UPDATED 4/6 [See time sensitive advocacy issues at the bottom] Times of crisis test not only the character of individuals but reveal the flaws in our man-made systems – including how we get food from farm to table. As we face the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, many will feel a loss of control, safety and security. It is natural to cycle through the stages of grief during times like these: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As someone working with nonprofits and farmers (arguably the riskiest small business of all), we must quickly move to the next stage: action. Nonprofits notoriously run on shoe string budgets, tenuous at the best of times; these organizations face further pressure in times of crisis because they often are charged with serving the most under resourced, under represented, and vulnerable populations. In parallel, our food system (especially our local food supply chain) from farmers, field workers and food hubs to food banks, farmers markets, and restaurants, are all operating on the tightest of margins, the lowest of wages, and the highest levels of risk often directly dependent on uncontrollable variables such as the weather and the economy. In summary, this crisis is about to create a ripple effect that will place both those most vulnerable and those serving them at risk. Which brings us to the question: how can we increase our resiliency in this time of crisis?
COMMUNICATION TOOLS: As we all begin the process of social distancing, quarantines, and in some cases, sheltering in place, we will rely more heavily on digital communication tools. As someone that already works from home, I can say that there are an array of choices. Google and Microsoft are offering their conferencing tools free-of-charge for a limited time. Slack’s free version is very robust and I highly recommend it for teams or collaborations, including industry collaborations (ex. area Food Banks coordinating). GoToMeeting is also offering their remote work tools free for three months. Zoom has a free option, just get ready for that 40 minute meeting cut-off. If you are like me and have to worry about the occasional baby cry or kiddo interrupting your call (we’ve all seen the video), I personally have gotten creative by adapting a little video conferencing space in my closet and when necessary taking calls in my car in the driveway.
To my farming friends, you are not alone and there are entire networks of food system leaders working hard to come up with solutions, including the National Good Food Network who dedicated an entire session to this process at their conference last week and have already created a COVID-19 Response Team listserv and working document. The National Young Farmers Coalition also has an array of resources to stay connected and in touch, including a survey to find out what your needs are. If the thought of another tough season has you feeling completely overwhelmed, there are farmer crisis hotlines available including Farm Aid at 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243), the RAFI-USA hotline 919-542-1396 and press #1 for the Farmer Crisis Hotline or toll-free at 866-586-6746 or the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (online chat also available).
Farmers can also find general disaster resources here and many state farm organizations, such as the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (NC and SC) and The Food Well Alliance (ATL) have pulled together additional resources. As we all know, the spring season is often the most profitable for farmers selling direct to consumer and with market closures and the downturn in the economy, now is not the time to have an abundance of supply and no way to connect with the demand.
The most comprehensive and proactive measures I have seen are those taken by 4PFoods in Virginia, as outlined in the following case statement as well as this robust trading and connections spreadsheet created by Farm to Institution New England (FINE). The overall message: We have to quickly shift the flow in our supply chain by directing food traditionally sold into farmers markets and restaurants and instead focus on selling to customers using home delivery services, redistributing to food banks and school feeding programs. This process includes leveraging the schools buses not currently in operation, cold storage that is currently empty, food service workers without jobs, and above all- gaining financial investments from the public and private sector to implement these strategies.
So what can farmers do in the immediate future? Here are some ideas:
Is there a shelter in place order in your city, county, or state? Make sure you are reaching out to your Department of Agriculture for support in providing proof of your essential status. For example, the SC Commissioner of Agriculture, Hugh Weathers, has drafted a Notice of Essential Food and Agriculture Employee form that farms in these areas may fill out for each employee certifying them as an essential employee. They should keep this letter with them while commuting to and from work. Commissioner Weathers also sent this letter to the law enforcement community in regards to his notice.
Make sure you have contact information for your customers so you can communicate with them, keep them informed on social media, and outline what steps you are taking to protect your products and workers (washable containers, gloves, masks, social distancing, general food safety practices). If you are a U-pick operation, there are even resources to build your own wash station.
Reach out to your local food hub to see if they have the capacity to buy your product or if they are aware of any processors able to process, dehydrate, and/or freeze as well as provide storage.
Connect with home CSA Delivery Farms and CSA/Box Services to see if they are able to buy and sell your products.
Consider making value added products with pre-approved recipes (remember, you will have to go through proper channels in your state to meet the processing requirements- examples resources from CA and NC) and/or working with companies that can do this for you. You may even know of chefs in your area that would like to partner on products that they can use in their kitchens when business picks back up.
Market the fact that there are great health and immunity benefits of fresh fruits and veggies (ex. high vitamin C in berries and broccoli) as well as sharing recipes for immune boosters like fire cider.
Encouraging customers to buy and bulk and freeze in case of quarantine.
Sell gift cards that customers can cash in later on in the year.
Reach out to your local food bank to see if they have the capacity or resources to purchase product. If you simply are not able to harvest, you can also see if they have any groups interested in gleaning.
For the farmers markets that have remained open, here is a good example of how a market in NC is making an effort to reduce exposure. Also see below on the campaign for #farmersmarketsaregrocerystores
Beyond keeping the operations running, we will all have a role to play in advocating for policies and relief packages that take the broader food system as well as nonprofits into consideration. Much of the work will need to be done at a state and regional level, just as the folks at 4PFoods. It has been indicated that agriculture is considered “Critical Infrastructure” but there are a lot of questions about where activities around food access and farmers markets will fall in these definitions.
“The toolkit includes a link to COVID-19 Operational Guidelines and Tips for Farmers Markets, which provides information on social distancing and sanitation practices that should be implemented at markets to maintain public health. It also includes resources to use when convincing local authorities to allow markets to continue and advocacy strategies to generate public support for the issue in your community. Please share these resources with the hashtag #farmersmarketsaregrocerystores.“
The team at Local Progress has pulled together a number of recommendations and actions highlighting the need for advocacy around equity during this time.
At the end of the day, we all have the opportunity to support our local farmers and reach out to nonprofits in our community to find opportunities to help, even from the safety of our homes. I hope we can use this time to cherish those we love, spend more time outdoors connecting with nature, and leverage this as a catalyst towards building a more resilient local food system.
The sound of fireworks has always brought with it a sense of nostalgia for the summer nights of youth filled with the excitement of staying up late followed by the booming explosions that echoed in your chest and lit up the sky. I find it incredibly fitting the 4th of July is a celebration of the Declaration of Independence because it was this time last year that I, too, declared my independence.
One year ago today, I struck out on my own as a business owner with the launch of Wit Meets Grit. I hit the ground running with three clients and have been going full steam ever since. Just to keep things interesting, my husband, Dan, and I bought a house at the same time, making the experiences of entrepreneurship and homeownership deeply intertwined. Both have given me an incredible sense of accomplishment and freedom I was completely unaware I had been missing. Admittedly (and not surprisingly) my work and family have been my primary focus (sorry garden).
Despite spending 5 years supporting, advising, and advocating for business owners, there is nothing quite like swimming in the water to make you appreciate the joys and dangers of the experience. While there have been challenges, none have been insurmountable or daunting. My biggest obstacle? Figuring out how to explain what I do for a living. Having spent so many years with clearly defined jobs, it has been difficult to put into words the depth and breadth of the services I am providing. When you grow-up with a modern renaissance man for a father, it is hard to see the point in narrowing down your interests or skills when there is so much pleasure to be found in new experiences and projects.
Upon reflection, I realized that in the end my passion is people. How they communicate, organize, collaborate, build their programs, run their organizations, manage their systems, make decisions, achieve results, and evaluate their success. Paired with an expertise in the areas of sustainability, environmental studies, and food systems (agriculture, land-use, distribution, marketing, and consumption), I am able to support the people and organizations working in these industries. And of course if you want to talk about green building, affordable housing, gardening, public health or transportation, those are areas of interest as well (hence the aforementioned depth and breadth).
In the last twelve months I have had the pleasure of working with ten different clients on a wide range of projects from meeting facilitation and coalition building to organizational development and landscape assessment. My clients range from small non-profits and businesses to large national organizations. Although the majority of my clients fall into the “food system” category, I have also had the opportunity to work with folks on areas of organizational management and the broader area of sustainability.
Beyond the work under the umbrella of Wit Meets Grit, I am also an adjunct faculty at the College of Charleston, co-teaching Introduction to Environmental Studies with a “hard-science” partner and just wrapped up co-teaching the Gaiananda Herbal Apprenticeship with SC Herbal Society. Outside of work, I am also heavily involved in community giving through volunteer work on several boards but that is a whole other post for another day.
A goal for the next year is to schedule more time to actually update the world on the fun I am having at work (and at home) to provide a peek into this fascinating world I find myself in. In my own defense for the serious lack of blog posts and updates, I just wrapped up a 6 month project that included over 25 interviews, data collection, and mapping on four states that resulted in a 60 page report (with citations) aka soooo much writing.
What is the most important take-away at this point? It has been a great year and I am so thankful for the support of friends and family as well as my stellar clients. To illustrate the awesomeness that is self-employment, I created a fun infographic.
Forget the foreign cars and name brands, you are now more likely to be judged by what is on your dinner table. Is that steak local, grass fed, animal welfare approved? Did you pair it with a side of local, organic, heirloom potatoes? While the string of labels becomes its own parody, it is indicative of our life in the information age. Transparency is a valuable trait that consumers are beginning to expect from companies, especially when it comes to food producers. In the race to lead the most socially, politically, and environmentally correct life possible, how does one ensure they are making the right choice?
The real challenge comes when determining which certification is the “best” and finding measurable data to back up these decisions. At the top of the debate is the local versus organic. Which is better? What is more important? How are they different and how are they similar? These are the types of questions that can paralyze you in the grocery store. Adding to this challenging endeavor is the reality that a lot of this is subjective. Everyone has their own set of values as well as financial and logistical constraints. What is the right choice for you and what you are able to source where you live?
Although the organic foods movement began in the 70s, the official National Organic Program was launched in 2002. Organic Certification is a process by which a food business must pass a third party inspection to verify that they have met organic standards, utilized specific production practices, and are not using prohibited substances. In South Carolina, Clemson University’s Public Service and Agriculture department is the Accredited Certification agency for the state that conducts these third party inspections. Ryan Merck is the Organic Program Coordinator with the program and has spent years on the ground in South Carolina conducting inspections on crops, livestock, and processing. He believes the strengths of the program are its ability to help provide accountability through third party verification and record keeping while also creating a minimum standard for how to farm with an “ecological component.”
The challenge for consumers in South Carolina is that currently there are only 53 certified farms, ranging from ¼ acre to 1,000 acres, leaving many gaps in supply. Charleston County only has three certified organic farms, Joseph Fields Farm, Middleton Place Organic Farm and Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center. Why are there so few farms getting certified in SC? Ryan believes it is in part due to misconceptions about the process being too expensive or having too much paperwork as well as a major deficit in farmer and consumer education. He noted that neighboring states are far ahead in numbers, with North Carolina home to 262 certified farms and Georgia up to 97 certified farms.
For Joseph and Helen Fields of Joseph Fields Farm, the choice to transition to organic began almost 14 years ago and this year they completed their 9th inspection. “The customers were asking for organic vegetables,” Helen Field reflects. As one of the first Certified Organic farms in the state, they had to spend a lot of time educating consumers when their prices increased. Although some fought the change, in the end Helen explained, “If someone is truly interested in organic, they buy it, regardless of the cost.”
While the Fields are seasoned veterans at the process, Joshua Adams just completed his first inspection as the Farm Manager at the Middleton Place Organic Farm. “It’s a lot of paperwork, but it’s really not as bad as I thought it was going to be,” he says. He realized that the process itself would help him develop positive habits in his first few years of farming. “As a farmer you need to keep good records and being certified organic helps you do that.”Yet Joshua is left feeling as though perhaps society has it wrong. “It’s kind of backward. As someone that is trying to grow healthier food, we have to have to go through so many hoops and other people can spray chemicals without even having to be labeled.”
Adams is not the only one that feels as though farmers practicing organic production should not have to go through a stringent process that eats into their already tight margins. Kenneth Melton, owner of Lowland Farms on Johns Island, has always grown using organic methods and attends a variety of trainings to learn more sustainable methods for his operation but is not certified. “I have kids and feed them from the farm. I don’t want to spray anything. I don’t want to import things onto my farm that I don’t have to”. As a farmer with direct to consumer and restaurant sales, he doesn’t see a reason to go through the process because he has great relationships with his customers and will answer any questions they have. “Once you have the relationship and they learn about how you are growing, organically, then they trust you,” he says. “People are more interested in where you are located.”
Lowland Farms is one of several local operations that sell regularly at farmers markets in the area, including the new market launching in West Ashley. Charleston is not the only city with an incredible demand for local food, as demonstrated in the continued growth of farmers markets nationwide from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,284 in 2014. Proponents of local foods are focused on the ability to have a relationship with their farmer, reduce their carbon footprint, access regionally specific products, support the local economy, and enjoy harvested-that-morning fresh produce.
Yet unlike organic, the food industry is having a harder time pinning down how exactly to define and enforce this. According to the USDA: “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.” In South Carolina, Growfood Carolina initially adopted the more stringent industry standard of 120 miles but recently expanded statewide to capture the range of growing seasons and products grown in the state. According to Sara Clow, the General Manager at Growfood, buyers are sourcing from them to access high quality produce that is sourced locally and are generally not as concerned with organic certification, “The chefs want what tastes best and is local.”
One of the challenges local is that distance is the only requirement. Local farmers can practice a broad range of production methods that may or may not reflect your own beliefs on health, social justice, animal welfare, or the environment. The benefit of location as a restriction is that because of their relationships in the communities in which they grow and live, farmers selling in direct markets locally have a great motivation to meet their consumer’s demands. If you have the ability to build a relationship with a farmer, you can ask about their practices and express your desire for certain types of certifications. Although this sounds like an ideal solution, the reality is the majority of Americans still buy their food at the grocery store – making food labels the primary tool for a customer can learn about a product. The current system relies heavily on certifications and language approved by the FDA (ie. words like “natural”) to help consumers make decisions because farmers are not in the store to answer questions. Marketing and packaging can be very confusing to customers and take advantage of loopholes in labeling restrictions. This weakness of the system is also its strength because it encourages consumers to actually learn about the food system and build relationships with those growing food in your community so they can be informed and savvy customers.
So what is better, local or organic? It is a question that only you can answer for yourself.