This four part series written for Edible Columbia and Charleston explores how South Carolina’s food system is evolving to overcome the growing challenges in order to meet the state’s needs. Readers will gain a behind the scenes perspective of the system getting food from the fields and onto forks by walking through the process, people, places, and policies of South Carolina’s local food system.

One of the most pleasant surprises of the pandemic has to be the 20 million Americans who took up gardening, a staggering number not seen in the United States since the Victory Garden movement of the 1940s. In the midst of the COVID-19 chaos, people found refuge in their backyard sanctuaries and experienced the joy and empowerment that comes with growing your own food. The pandemic also pushed consumers to seek sources of food closer to home through local farms and markets when the shelves at the grocery store turned up empty.

Prior to the pandemic, the average middle-class or wealthy American living in a metropolitan area has likely not been given a reason to question the historically cheap, convenient, abundant, and diverse selection of foods. When functioning as designed, the globalized food system has the power to portray a world with no growing seasons, blemish-free food, and an abundance of choice for those with means. In contrast, millions of Americans, especially in rural communities, have long been living with a front row seat to the broken aspects of the food system in which food is inaccessible, unaffordable, or unhealthy.

In 2018, South Carolina ranked 42nd in the nation for poverty, with both rural and urban residents facing food deserts (lack of access to a grocery store) and food swamps (excessive access to fast food/convenience stores). With the onset of the pandemic, the challenges faced by rural and under-resourced communities became problems for everyone. There is nothing like showing up to the grocery store and finding empty shelves to spark an interest in how our food supply chains work (or don’t in this case). Layer by layer, elements of the food system were peeled back and weaknesses revealed. The public began to understand that the food system can be complex, inequitable, unsafe, fragile and unsustainable. Headlines filled with supply chain disruptions, meat packing plants shutdowns, worker deaths, food safety issues, challenges with food access, and endless lines at food banks painted a picture of a broken system. For those living with limited resources, the existing disparities only grew while healthy food choices continued to be unavailable and food unaffordable. According to a poverty study from the Sisters of Charity, nearly half of the state’s residents lived in areas of low food access in 2015, a time when the state had approximately 812 grocery stores. By early 2020, 105 of these stores had closed (12.9%), further reducing access.

As we approach the end of 2022, communities continue to feel the impacts of the pandemic but as a whole, many aspects of the food system have gone back to business as usual with one major exception: price. The 10.4% increase over the last year continues to fuel the conversation around why the US is experiencing the largest 12-month increase in food costs since February 1981. For those in food production, these costs are in many ways tied to an increase in price of inputs, transportation, and labor. Unfortunately, even at the current prices, the system is not capturing the true cost of production. This means that despite the higher sales prices, farmers are still challenged with reaching profitability, an issue the industry has been grappling with for decades. The majority of farm operators nationally have off-farm jobs or rely on the income of a spouse, which accounts for an average of 82 percent of total income for all family farms in 2019. Low profitability means low wages for everyone down the line and resulting in those working in the food supply chain having the highest enrollment in SNAP benefits than any other industry. It doesn’t take a math degree to recognize that this equation is not adding up.

South Carolina has a long agricultural history, with agribusiness currently representing the largest sector in the state with 1 in 9 jobs are in agribusiness with profits of close to $50 billion and 4.7 million acres of productive farmland. With these impressive numbers, it is hard to reconcile the fact that we are also a state in which 1 in 10 South Carolinians face food insecurity and our farmland received the eighth highest national “threat score” (risk of being converted to non-agricultural use) by the American Farmland Trust. While it is tempting to take readers on a journey through the evolution of how our food systems came to be what they are, the time for finger pointing, political posturing and polarization have passed. Less than 1% of South Carolina’s population is still farming (0.7%), and these numbers are actively threatened as the state continues to lose farmland. As the six fastest growing state in the US, American Farmland Trust has projected that in less than 20 years, we will lose an additional 436,700 acres of land to development. Farmland loss is attributed to a wide variety of factors, but for many, it comes down to money. To keep farmland productive, we have to keep it profitable. But history has taught us that this can not be profitability gained at the expense of our local people and places.

Understanding the challenges and recognizing the need for change is only the beginning. Having a clear pathway to change is crucial. In 2013, the Making Small Farms into Big Business report was commissioned to understand the potential for the state to grow their food system. The take home message was clear: the market opportunities are ripe for the picking. It revealed that historically, South Carolina has exported the food it grows and imports the food it eats. According to the study, 90% of food eaten in South Carolina was imported from outside of the state. By shifting production towards local markets, we could reap the benefits from farm to table.

These benefits extend far beyond the sales of local food but have demonstrated the capacity to be a tool for economic development. The growing demand for local food also brings with it a wide range of  physical and social infrastructure. Communities across the country, South Carolina included, have experienced the development of local food hubs, mobile abattoirs (meat processing), community kitchens, direct to consumer software, innovative small farm technology, farming apprenticeships, incubator farms, community gardens, farm to table restaurants, small grocers, food councils, and all of the associated jobs along the local food supply chain. What started as an effort to grow and sell food locally quickly becomes an opportunity to create jobs and increase community connectivity. The national data indicates that local retailers return 52 percent of their revenue back into the local economy, compared to 14 percent for national chain retailers and have a record of employing more locals for longer periods of time. Once heralded as only a trend, the local food movement has earned a permanent place in the food and farming landscape generating an estimated $20 billion dollars nationally.

Members of the SC Food Hub Network have seen local food sales grow from approximately $2 million in 2016 to $4.4 million in 2020. Pre-pandemic, this growth was achieved through robust farm to table focused restaurants, grocers, and wholesale accounts with a focus on creating profitability for SC farmers. Selling products as a premium does however create a barrier in accessing local food, something that was creatively addressed incrementally through gleaning (gathering unsold or unharvested crops for donation) and through grant supported programs.

In a surprising turn of events, COVID-19 actually created a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between local producers and those facing food insecurity. South Carolina food hubs, distributors, food access agencies, and community based organizations partnered to leverage millions of relief dollars to pay farmers for food distributed into local communities. While the Palmetto state was able to provide incredible support for farmers and community members to buy and distribute local food through these partnerships, this is only one part of the system. A long-term strategic approach will need to be holistic and explore the challenges in inequities from land access and farmer training all the way to nutrition education and food waste.

Now begins the hard work of keeping up the momentum and working collaboratively to find place-based, long-term solutions. National policies (i.e. Farm Bill), federal appropriations, allocations, and grants will continue to have significant implications for anyone working in the food system, but we cannot overlook the state level policy, regulation, and investments that have the power to truly elevate or suppress the growth and efficacy within local communities. Rising to meet the challenge is the Growing Local SC local food network, a multi-sector project building off the work of the South Carolina Food Policy Council and the South Carolina Food Hub Network (funded by the USDA with matching funds provided by the SC Department of Agriculture). With nine founding partners and 30 leaders representing everything from public health to farmer training, the network aims to cultivate a thriving, equitable, inclusive, resilient, and just food economy providing access to healthy food for all in South Carolina.

At the heart of this network is a desire to build and strengthen the local food system community in the state to increase awareness, connectivity and collaboration for existing organizations and businesses. The network leaders are interested in elevating the voices of those often missing at the table and ensuring that the path forward creates opportunities for everyone in the state. The network has a wide range of ways to connect from an events calendar, newsletters and Instagram to a listserv and committees. This October, the group will host its inaugural Growing Local SC Food Summit in Greenville, SC to hear from those at every stage of the food system to understand the challenges, opportunities, and priorities for those working on the ground. Stay tuned for the next issue where we will share stories from the people attending the summit and hear their perspective on the future of South Carolina’s food system. Follow along via Instagram @growinglocalsouthcarolina, the website, the newsletter, and participate in person at the inaugural Local Food Summit:

Written by Nikki Seibert Kelley