“When we talk about food systems, it doesn’t start when we break the ground and plant a seed. It starts with the landscapes we find ourselves on. We don’t think about it but we are surrounded by food,” shared DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren referencing the wealth of wild plants, mushrooms, animals, and herbs in the natural environment. Reflecting on the disconnect society faces with food, including within the Catawba Indian Nation, George-Warren noted, “One of our biggest issues is the loss of knowledge including how to find it, take care of it, not take too much, and how to prepare it.” Through community organizing, advocacy, and art, DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren is working with fellow Catawba food system leaders to bring awareness about native food system and building capacity to address the challenges facing his community.

For Indigenous people across the world, this erosion of knowledge is directly tied to the loss of traditional lands, the systematic dismantling and displacement of communities, and the federal control over commodity foods distributed into Native communities. During the Indigenous Leaders caucus at the 2022 Growing Local SC Food Summit, participants prioritized “food sovereignty” as the number one goal. Food sovereignty can be defined as a community having the right to control their own food system farm to table. It is local people having the power to develop a food system that centers the needs of their community. This concept resonated with participants, tying for fourth as one of the top opportunities for South Carolina’s food system. Discussions repeatedly circled around how much potential the state has to feed its communities while supporting its farmers and food system workers. “One of my hopes is that a decade from now we enact the ethic that everyone gets food, everyone gets water, and has shelter,” stated George-Warren. 

These aspirations are as practical and realistic as they are ambitious and complex. As noted in the previous two articles of this series, the dominant food systems in America are part of a globalized system that prioritizes efficiency, convenience, and money above all else. While many lived blissfully unaware of the true cost of this broken system, the pandemic pulled the curtains back to reveal a stark reality. The existing systems have come at the expense of human lives, health and safety, equity, environmental degradation, the erosion of local economies, rural blight, etc. And even with all of these staggering indirect costs, this system does not provide access to healthy or affordable food to almost 20% of the nation’s population. The negative impacts, inequities, and inaccessibility of the food system have incited incredible momentum towards rebuilding of food systems to serve communities instead of corporations. The local foods movement continues to rise up in response to global supply chains and instead offers up alternatives such as “values-based supply chains,” “local food supply chains,” “foodsheds,” and “community food webs”. 

What are the ingredients of a local food system? To start, we can explore the core sectors of a local food system which are typically broken down into the following categories:

  • land preservation/access,
  • production/harvest,
  • processing,
  • aggregation/distribution,
  • education/marketing,
  • retail/restaurants,
  • cooking/consumption,
  • and waste/recycling (see graphic).

The SC Food Policy Council (Council) is working to bring these sectors together to cross-pollinate and build a bridge between the local and state level. The food system sectors have informed the Council’s committees and initiatives as shown in the graphic. To support individuals and organizations in connecting around local food system issues, the Council facilitates open meetings with their 331 members (including 101 organizations), provides assistance to 11 local food policy councils, and supports cross-sector initiatives like Food is Medicine SC and Growing Local SC. 

While food system’s across the world all share similar sectors outlined above, each system is shaped by key factors including:

  • leadership,
  • food type and scale of production,
  • infrastructure,
  • markets,
  • workforce,
  • transportation,
  • educational system,
  • organizations/agencies,
  • economic development,
  • regulations/laws/policies
  • and funding investments to name a few.

The variability of food systems is why there is not a silver bullet or one-size-fits all solution to addressing our broken food systems; it is also why place-based solutions have the highest success rates. As you may have noticed, leadership was first on the list; people have an incredible power in the success of a local food system. Leaders like George-Warren that understand the unique perspectives, knowledge, challenges, and opportunities that influence the key factors above within their community. Independently, these leaders play an important role but it is when they are able to plug into a strong network that their impact is amplified. 

The secret sauce of a strong local food system is a well-connected, inclusive, diverse (in ALL the ways), and collaborative network. When leaders from across sectors are well connected from the grassroots level up to the state house, there is an opportunity to create an open line of communication to initiate change and respond quickly during a crisis. In South Carolina there is still a significant disconnect between those on the ground working in local food systems and those in power. When the global supply chain gears ground to a halt during COVID-19, it was the grassroots organizations living and working in the communities on the frontlines hustling in realtime to support communities by adapting overnight. The insight, network, and resources from these organizations could have provided valuable and time sensitive perspectives to local and state leadership but there was no established communication pathway or advocacy platform. For those living in rural communities where disparities were already high and resources limited, the pandemic put even more pressure on grassroots organizations to create their own solutions.

In Marion County where approximately 1 in 4 residents live in poverty, Pick42 Foundation (Neighbors Helping Neighbors) became a hub of activity that literally adapted from day to day. Executive Director Miko Pickett was able to tap into her strong grassroots network to both understand the needs of the community and bring in the right partners to help them get through the pandemic. From vaccine clinics to emergency food relief, their organization evolved weekly to meet community needs. As the emergency aid started to dwindle, Pickett quickly began seeking local, sustainable solutions to ensure residents had food access in the long-term. Before long Pickett began working with local partners to plant a community garden and started reaching out to local farmers. 

Through this journey Pickett was introduced to the SC Food Policy Council and several years later, now serves as the Board Chair. Pick 42’s programs have grown to include a mobile food pantry, five community gardens, the Marion County Food Policy Council, and the “Eat Local Pee Dee” Black farmer network. “The seasons are longer here, the soil is fertile, and our farmers know how to grow…we just want to help them succeed as farm businesses,” comments Pickett. Miko Pickett is the “leadership” factor in the Marion local food system that connects the needs of the local community all the way to leadership at the state level. She became a food system leader out of necessity in order to feed her community despite having no formal training in the sector. Instead, Pickett leveraged her years working in corporate technology and her strong network building skills to support her in recruiting the right partners to serve the community.  

The majority of the food system leaders in my network were also forged in the fires of trial-and-error, sharing a passion for community and a tireless commitment to finding solutions. Based on the success of local leaders like Miko working on the ground to rebuild their food system one relationship at a time, it is clear that our dynamic and complex systems need dynamic and diverse leadership from all backgrounds. The power of social capital, local knowledge, and network building cannot be underestimated. Formally trained or self-taught, this movement cannot be sustained without on the ground food system leaders and their place based solutions gaining the recognition, support, and investment necessary. 

Pickett and George-Warren’s stories are two of hundreds across the state. We have an abundance of data and anecdotes about the local innovation, donations collected, farms saved, and people fed to prove what we’ve championed all along: resilience is found in place- based solutions driven by local leadership and supported by strong networks built on trust. But whether or not this translates into long-term, systemic support for these efforts remains to be seen. As federal funding continues to rain down, there has never been a more important time for state leadership to recognize the value of investing in local food systems. The return on investment could mean a pathway towards resilience in agriculture, increased food access, improved health outcomes, an economic development tool for rural communities, control of our own food supply, workforce development, natural resource conservation, increased tourism, and an opportunity for collaboration across political lines. As other states have demonstrated, creating meaningful systems change takes a groundswell of support with leaders in every county across the state engaged in local networks with direct connections at the state level. Together this network can channel the on-the ground needs into a state-level platform, creating the potential to reach the summit goal: food sovereignty. 

Want to join in the movement? Join the SC Food Policy Council as a member (free), check-out (and add to) the events calendar, sign-up for the Growing Local SC quarterly newsletter, and follow along on social media at @growinglocalsouthcarolina on IG. 

This article was written for Edible Columbia and Edible Charleston.

Written by Nikki Seibert Kelley