This series written for and published by Edible Magazine in SC explores how South Carolina’s food system is evolving to overcome the growing challenges in order to meet the state’s needs. Check out the first article in the series if you missed it.

The winter season is rich with traditions and in the South, food is the star of the show. Sweet potato and pecan pie, cornbread and oyster dressing, greens and hoppin’ john are all invited to dinner. Recipes are as cherished as they are debated but everyone agrees that it is the freshest ingredients that make the best dishes. Long before locavores and farm-to-table restaurants, dinner tables in the South have been a celebration of sustenance and seasonality. Before refrigerated transportation and grocery stores, communities ate what was grown on either their land or their neighbors. It is easy to see how so many of South Carolina’s traditional dishes came to be simply by looking at a farmer or fishermen’s harvest schedule and the incredibly diverse and abundant range of local foods available in our state. At the peak of every season when gardens and farms grew more than could be eaten or sold, kitchens became de facto processing facilities, canning or “putting up” until the shelves were full.

While many families have continued to produce, harvest, process, and catch these same beloved foods for generations, the number of these operations still in business is staggeringly low. Currently only 0.7% of the population in South Carolina is farming on 4.8 million acres with only 6% of those farmers (0.000042% of the population or 25,000 farmers) are selling directly to consumers. In 1920, 11% of the population was farming on 12.4 million acres, so how did a state with such strong cultural ties to food and farming lose so many farms?

Over the last several decades, the shift in American values, culture, policies, technology, and infrastructure have had a direct impact on the country’s systems, including those producing and distributing food. Designed by people in power, these systems were shaped around the priorities of society and for decades these included efficiency, convenience, and cost. While these systems were effective at centering these priorities it also gave rise to a culture of fast, easy, and cheap consumerism. The benefits have come at the expense of human lives, health and safety, equity, environmental degradation, the erosion of local economies, rural blight, etc. 

Within the food and farming sector, these systems pushed farmers to focus on cash crops over community, placed technology and output over ecology, and drove the “get big or get out” approach that led to small farms being bought out and consolidated into larger monoculture farms focused on export. From the 1930’s Dust Bowl and the 1980’s farming crisis to the 2000’s dairy industry collapse and the pandemic’s meat packing plant deaths, generation after generation of farming communities, food system workers, and farmland have suffered because of these priorities. Farming currently has the highest suicide rate of any other industry in the United States and food system workers are the most food insecure population in the country. These are symptoms of a broken system; although some would argue that it is working exactly as it is designed despite the repercussions. Across sectors, there is a collective awakening to the negative consequences of our globalized systems. 

As these realities become widely known, consumers are increasingly demanding transparency and accountability for where, how, and who produces their goods and products. For the food system, this is being achieved by rebuilding the connection between farmers and consumers. In a way, the industry is working to find its way back to the country’s historical roots of neighbors feeding neighbors. Known as a “values-based supply chain”, “local food supply chain”, “foodshed” or “community food web”, these systems focus on building a network of individuals, organizations, municipalities, and businesses committed to create strong markets that put farmers first. The benefits of “buying local” extend beyond the benefit of consumers knowing their farmer and also create opportunities to support farmers whose production practices align with their conservation values, increase system resiliency, support the local economy, reduce the carbon footprint or food miles of their meals, increase the nutrient density of their food, access heirloom and specialty products, build community, and reduce farmland loss. 

But how far can a product travel before these benefits begin to diminish and it is no longer considered “local”? The definition of what constitutes local is still debated but is generally understood to mean products that are grown and processed close to where they are sold, purchased and consumed. According to the US Department of Agriculture local includes foods grown, caught, and/or processed within 400 miles or within the state in which it was produced. Based on the Real Food Challenge, local is designated by a 250-mile radius and extended to 500 miles for meat. For the branding of local food to be effective at differentiating products (and demanding a premium price), it is important for consumers to clearly understand what they are buying into. Putting this into practice has proven to be more challenging than drawing radius circles on a map.

Food and farming systems are as diverse and dynamic as the regions they serve; making a rigid one-size-fits all approach impractical. Variability is created by geography, planting zones, length of growing season, transportation, markets, arable soil, access to water, and regulatory agencies. What works in California might be impossible in Minnesota. While some areas can reasonably define that local products are sourced within 75 miles, others may need 500 miles to secure enough product to meet customer demand. In either case, those selling local products either have the trust of consumers or are able to document their supply chain. For direct to consumer sales such as farmers markets and community supported agriculture shares, the farmers typically set the distance based on time and transportation limits and consumers are able to buy directly from the farmer. But at some point, the time and cost to transport the product exceeds the potential benefit of the sale, naturally creating a smaller radius. 

Eventually the demand outgrew the limitations of individual farmers and 1:1 transactions. As restaurants, grocery stores and institutions joined the movement, the need arose for a third party able to source higher volumes of local food with more consistency. Enter the concept of local food hubs. Based on combinations of cooperative principles, mission driven intentions, and wholesale distribution practices, food hubs have emerged to help the local food movement scale up. These organizations and businesses have been a tool for social change rooted in a desire to support small to mid-sized farmers, ranchers, and fishermen in accessing larger markets. 

By working with farmers to standardize their products and collectively crop plan around market demands, hubs can combine items or “aggregate” from a variety of local farms in order to meet the volume, quality, and selection expectations of larger buyers. They can also guarantee “source identification” so that the final customer knows what farm their products are from. On the production side, farmers can shift back to a focus on growing, harvesting, and grading products and hand over the marketing, logistics, and payment services to the hub. 

In South Carolina, the movement started with Gullah Farmers Cooperative and GrowFood Carolina and has since grown to nine food hubs, trading partnerships with three traditional wholesales, and the creation of the SC Food Hub Network. As a small state, these organizations and businesses must invest significant time on the logistics of matching buyers with sellers, trading between hubs to move this product across the state efficiently, and coordinating crop plans to meet demand. Food hubs have also embraced the need to, when appropriate, broaden “local” to include “regional” foods depending on the product and season. In South Carolina, three of the hubs serving the state are either on or adjacent to the border, buying and selling product from and to North Carolina and Georgia in addition to South Carolina. It has also led to the growth in partnerships that extend even further beyond our borders through the Eastern Food Hub Collaborative which spans from South Carolina to Maine. 

As the local foods movement continues to grapple with defining its boundaries and refining the logistics, there is still a long journey ahead for the system to build a system that is equitable and accessible to the community. During the inaugural statewide Growing Local SC Food Summit held in October of this year, food system leaders across sectors gathered to talk about and prioritize the challenges and opportunities for the state. The top four issues were the cost of food, policy reform, land access, and systemic racism. These challenges mirror those experienced across the country and while many need to be addressed at a federal level, the state and its leaders will play a crucial role in how these issues are addressed locally.

In the coming months and years, billions of dollars will be poured specifically into local food systems at the national level and millions of these dollars are already earmarked for South Carolina. For example, the SC Department of Agriculture requested $20,000,000 to support local food supply chain infrastructure from the state ARPA funds in September 2021 and continues to wait for legislative approval at the state house. This funding will be crucial in supporting the state as it prepares to utilize its recently awarded $6.1 million in funds through the USDA Local Foods Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement to purchase locally sourced food from socially disadvantaged farmers for distribution into underserved communities. Not only are these funds urgently needed but our state’s ability to equitably, efficiently and effectively utilize the funding received has a direct impact on how much future federal funding makes it to South Carolina. The South Carolina Food Policy Council and its members will be leading the conversation on issues like these and creating opportunities for individuals and organizations to engage and advocate through their committees, initiatives, and resources. Membership to the SCFPC is free and provides an opportunity to participate in conversations around the following topics: food access and insecurity, planning and transportation, racial equity within the food system, food is medicine, urban and rural local food, and branding and communication. I hope to see many of you at the next meeting as we continue to grow South Carolina’s local food system from farm and garden to table.  

Written by Nikki Seibert Kelley