Once seen as the only way to survive, planting a food garden has become largely lost among younger generations with worsening wealth inequality, according to food-growing advocates in the Lowcountry.
But the pandemic and its restrictions have highlighted the need for a return to roots as thousands have sought federal food assistance.
“What happens when you can’t afford a grocery store? That’s what got me to growing my own food,” said Germaine Jenkins of North Charleston. Her efforts in the garden would eventually spark the nonprofit Fresh Future Farm, which grows food in the Chicora/Cherokee community where no grocery stores have been since 2005. “People are reconsidering gardening.”
Fresh Future Farm has distributed free seeds to those in need, and in Summerville, Katie’s Krops has worked to do the same.
“People are realizing it is such an important skill to learn, especially in times like these, because it can be difficult to get to the grocery store,” said Katie Stagliano of Summerville, founder of Katie’s Krops. The food-growing nonprofit funds community gardens that benefitting those in need around the nation.
Most of those seeking out seeds are older, Jenkins said. A generation or two sometimes separates those growing gardens and those not. That knowledge gap coupled with the additional time and expense of a garden has worked against would-be growers, advocates say.
Emory Campbell, co-author of Gullah Days: Hilton Head Islanders Before the Bridge, said that in the 1940s and 1950s, food-growing and foraging culture was strong among South Carolina’s poor and Gullah communities, because that’s how they fed themselves.
But Campbell said he eventually gave up on his own garden when a cousin said he was wasting his time on something he could buy at the store. Campbell was a part of a trend, he said.
“We have abandoned the people who can maintain self sufficiency, we dragged them off to work (and) we educate them poorly,” Campbell said.
Jenkins said she did not grow up in a household that grew a food garden.
“Everybody knew how to grow food up until a certain point,” Jenkins said. “As jobs took folks off the farms … there were less people growing food, just a whole disconnection from the land started.”
A shift in culture left the poor exposed to food insecurity as income affects what food they can access, she said. In other words, without a job and a paycheck, a person without a garden is left without a way to obtain food.
“You think in the long run, because you paid a nickel for a potato (at a grocery store), you’re better off, but where does the nickel come from?” Jenkins said.
Angelina Zurita of Ladson brought memories of food-growing culture in Mexico with her when she immigrated in 2001. She started her own garden where her young children help her weed, curb caterpillars and harvest. But, she said, it has been difficult to get other young people interested in food growing.
“It seems they are not grasping that same value in growing your own crops,” Zurita said.
Members of the Edisto Natchez Kusso Tribe outside of Ridgeville still maintain some gardens, but the gardens have gotten smaller over the years, according to Chief John Creel.
“A lot of our elders still plant gardens but, the younger generation, there has been a fracture between the younger and older generation,” Creel said.
Creel and the tribe are working on a farmers market and gardening initiative with the help of a national grant. He said the goals of the program are twofold: bringing the generations together and food access.
A hunger to return
Jenkins said she began gardening when she realized the benefits of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program did not last the whole month and it was difficult to bring fresh produce home to her family.
“Not all black people but some black people associate farming with slavery, when the opposite is true,” Jenkins said. “Me, being able to grow my food, gave me more self-confidence and freedom because I knew I could feed myself if something like what’s happening now happened.”
Campbell said the current pandemic and its economic fallout have highlighted the need for people to re-learn to grow food.
“Now we have to reclaim (gardening) because we don’t have the cash to go down to the supermarket, we’re out of a job,” he said.
Growing food can also bring a healthier diet to low-income families.
“(It) helps economically because these greens in the store are really expensive and they treat them with a lot of chemicals,” Zurita said. “You have a lot of control over what you and your family are ingesting, and not intaking a lot of chemicals.”
And for those living far from the grocery store, like some in North Charleston or the Edisto Natchez Kusso tribal members, growing food can help improve poor health from chronic conditions like obesity, Creel and Jenkins said.
Fernando Soto provided translation service for part of this story.