When Clay Hampton swings a hoe in his garden, he can hear the roar of trucks passing by on Spruill Avenue and see his neighbors riding bikes down to the corner convenience store. He grew up working in his mother’s garden on James Island, so he knows how to till the earth, kill weeds with a tarp, and salvage seeds from a dying okra plant. Wiry and active at age 69, he also knows the health benefits of working outdoors and eating fresh produce — and he wants to share those benefits with his neighbors.

Hampton is not a social worker or eco-activist. He is a handyman and sports bar owner by trade, and he works in the garden during his spare time, sometimes rising early or working between jobs. But on a small scale, he is helping to solve one of the great ills that plague the southern end of North Charleston. Every time a family takes collard greens from his community garden for Sunday dinner, and every time someone picks a bell pepper for salad, Hampton enlarges an oasis in what many experts call a food desert.

Food deserts are low-income areas where residents have little access to healthy food and produce, often because their neighborhood lacks a supermarket. According to the USDA, North Charleston contains 11 census tracts that fit the criteria for food deserts, many in the river-bound stretch of land called the Neck. Of the 33,000 people living in those tracts, 19,500 have low access to grocery stores. For urban areas, “low access” is defined as the lack of a grocery store within one mile of home, which can present a barrier to nutrition when a family lives in poverty and does not own a car.

Sometimes kids from the neighborhood will stop by to help tend the small field beside the train tracks, but Hampton says they’ve got a lot to learn.

“You know they’ve never seen an earthworm,” says Hampton, who started cultivating the empty lot in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood three years ago. His idea was to start a community garden where anybody could come tend the field, plant a few seeds, and take home some fresh produce to their families.

Ashley Brown, who has rented a house from Hampton since October and lives directly next door to the garden, says she has not yet taken him up on the offer of free produce in exchange for a little bit of labor. She is a big believer in fruits and vegetables for her two growing boys, ages 2 and 4, but for now, she rides with her boyfriend to West Ashley to buy healthy groceries.

“I’m going to wait until Mr. Clay shows me the way, because I don’t want to mess it up,” she says.

When the Rev. Bill Stanfield started his ministry in Chicora-Cherokee in 2003, he never thought he would get involved in the grocery business. Stanfield is the CEO of Metanoia, a Christian nonprofit organization that focuses on building affordable housing and running after-school leadership programs. He came to North Charleston with an open mind, though.

“We really believe the community is going to know the solutions to their own problems,” Stanfield says. Metanoia has hosted annual town hall meetings for the last five years, and every year, the lack of a supermarket has been the No. 1 problem identified by people in his community.

Things haven’t always been this way. Stores started leaving the neighborhood as long ago as 1989 in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. The last grocery store to shut its doors was the Winn-Dixie in Shipwatch Square, which had been one of the company’s most profitable locations until it closed all of its South Carolina stores in 2005.

Stanfield started doing some research, and he learned that the two types of grocery stores doing well in today’s economy are high-end organic markets — like Earth Fare and Whole Foods — and small-scale bargain stores like Save-A-Lot and Aldi’s. He called City Councilman Michael Brown, and the two reached out to Save-A-Lot executives to see if they would be interested in setting up shop in North Charleston.

Stanfield says the ideal fix would have been a full-service, 45,000-square-foot supermarket, but business realities got in the way. Traditional supermarkets run a very tight profit margin, sometimes as little as 1 percent, and often they don’t want to take risks in low-income neighborhoods. Standfield says part of the difficulty is that when a grocer is looking to move into an area, it will usually focus on the earned income of its residents. That figure does not take into account other sources of income such as EBT food stamp cards, WIC benefits for women with infant children, and Social Security checks.

So instead of getting a full-size grocery store, what North Charleston got was a Save-A-Lot, which opened at the corner of Rivers and Durant avenues in an abandoned drug store early in 2010. The store is mostly stocked with Save-A-Lot-brand items in open shipping boxes, and the selection is not as diverse as at larger chains, but the prices on produce are reasonable and actually cheaper than Walmart in some cases. At one point, tomatoes were going for $1.49 a pound at Save-A-Lot, compared to $1.79 a pound at the Walmart near the Tanger Outlets.

Still, Save-A-Lot on Rivers only provides relief at the northern end of the food desert. Farther south, the only readily available food comes from fast food restaurants and corner grocery stores, which are not known for their wide selection of healthy options.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey is well-versed in the food desert problem. To his knowledge, the area between Union Heights and Seven Mile used to have seven full-size grocery stores. Now there are none.

“Those folks deserve a quality grocery store in which to shop,” Summey said in an interview leading up to the November elections. He said the city was negotiating with two different full-service grocery chains about bringing a new store to Shipwatch Square. He has high hopes for the shopping center, which he thinks could spark development on the south side in the same way that the city’s renovation of the Old Village shopping strip did in Park Circle. Walgreens is planning to build a drugstore at Shipwatch Square, and Summey has been talking with Charleston County about building a new library branch in the shopping center.

“There are not only food deserts. I think you have technology deserts as well,” Summey says. “And we have to offer that to folks in the area.”

 Just down the street from Clay Hampton’s community garden, the J&R Market is a popular spot for people looking to buy a bag of chips or a can of beer. A hand-painted sign on the front of the squat brick building at 2947 Spruill Ave. announces what customers can expect: “EBT * ATM * Groceries * Beer/Wine * Snacks * Cigs.”

Inside, past the anti-theft mirror domes and the checkout counter where hip-hop music plays loudly enough to make people raise their voice in conversation, Isbell’s Kitchen serves up $4.50 pork chop sandwiches and $3 fried crabs. There are groceries to be found in the store, but they are not cheap: $1.49 for a 14.5-oz. can of Great Value mustard greens, $1.79 for a 10.75-oz. can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, $2.19 for a 12-oz. can of Hunt’s tomato paste. Save-A-Lot sells equivalent items for 79 cents, $1.69, and 78 cents, respectively.

Most people arrive at J&R on foot or on a bicycle, says manager Ron German, a 2007 graduate of Wando High School who has worked at the store for a year and a half. J&R’s grocery distributor requires a minimum $1,500 purchase for each inventory shipment, so if the stock of canned vegetables gets depleted, the management will sometimes resort to buying and reselling from Family Dollar or Sam’s Club — hence the markup on supermarket brands.

“We’re in the lower-income, pretty much poverty area,” German says, “so most of the things here are microwavable, and it’s not healthy in any way, shape, or form.” German, who is training to be a semi-professional soccer player, eats healthy and tries to do his own grocery shopping at Whole Foods.

Just north of Shipwatch Square on Rivers Avenue, S&L Supermarket is situated near Horizon Village, a low-income housing community that was recently built with a suburban layout and colorful, Charleston-style homes. Sharaf Edris, who has worked at the counter for 10 years, says the store tried devoting its entire back wall to fruits and vegetables two years ago, but they just didn’t sell.

“If you don’t sell product, you don’t get credit,” Edris says. The back wall is now lined with shelves bearing chips, candy, and Otis Spunkmeyer pre-packaged muffins.

 One solution to food deserts is to build more grocery stores. But grocery chains are not charities, and when access to healthy food is limited, government and nonprofit organizations sometimes step in to fill the need.

Oftentimes, they funnel aid through the public school system. Lowcountry Food Bank runs a Backpack Buddy program, sending kids home with three pounds of single-serving food — including fruits and vegetables — on weekends during the school year. The real crisis comes in the summer months, when families who had depended on free and reduced-price lunches for their children come looking for a way to fill a dietary gap. According to an analysis of Department of Agriculture data conducted by the New York Times, 21 million students received subsidized lunches in the 2010-2011 school year, up from 18 million in 2006-2007.

Deb Loesel, programs manager at Lowcountry Food Bank, says that available federal funds for summer feeding programs are on the decline. This school year, the food bank got a grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation to start food pantry programs at Frierson Elementary, Goodwin Elementary, Cainhoy Elementary/Middle, and Greeleyville Elementary School in rural Williamsburg County.

“We selected all elementary schools in part because we believe that trying to get to the children as early as possible gives us the most opportunities to try to not only alleviate immediate needs but begin to put together programs and services that can really be more transformational,” Loesel says. Kids’ eating habits impact parents’ shopping habits, she says, so nutrition education plus healthy food pantries can equal big changes for families.

The Lowcountry Housing Trust has also taken an interest in the issue of food deserts, particularly in North Charleston. LHF is a community development financial institution (CDFI), which means that it provides capital loans to developers. In October, the organization was one of 11 to win federal CDFI Fund grants specifically meant to address food deserts. Now executive director Michelle Mapp is looking for ways to invest the $500,000 windfall.

Mapp says she has identified 16 census tracts in the five-county area her organization serves, and the majority are in North Charleston. The scenario she sees in the Neck is that many families do their grocery shopping either to the south at the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly or to the north at Walmart locations near Tanger or on Rivers Avenue. To get there, many of them are taking taxis or CARTA buses, incurring transportation costs and limiting the amount of groceries they can take home in a trip.

The first loan made from the grant was $90,000 to Lowcountry Produce, which opened a market in Beaufort’s old city hall in July, selling fruits and vegetables in the middle of what used to be a food desert. Mapp has considered making a loan to a developer to help get a grocery store into Shipwatch Square, and she commends the City of North Charleston for its willingness to get the ball rolling on redeveloping the abandoned shopping center.

“Local government can make a small investment that spurs private investment,” Mapp says. “I think it should be applauded that they were willing to step in and purchase that land and say, ‘OK, how do we build some momentum here so that private developers will want to come in, so that a full-service grocery store will want to come here? ’ ”

In the world of nonprofits, grants come and go like the favor of the gods, deciding the fate of programs both successful and ill-conceived. Loesel is not certain the Newman’s Own grant will be renewed next year, and Mapp is counting on a solid investment return from the development grant.

Inside Lowcountry Food Bank’s 62,000-square-foot storehouse on Azalea Drive, five minutes from Clay Hampton’s garden, workers wheel about on forklifts, sorting pallets of donated food — some of it healthy, some of it just a source of calories to help hungry families get by. At the food bank kitchen, where volunteers prepare meals for after-school programs, the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam — “repairing the world” — is painted above the doorway. It’s a tall order, especially on Spruill Avenue. And it might just start with planting a row of spinach.

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