Championing Change: Fighting for Food Access

A South Carolina neighborhood overcomes food apartheid with a local farmers market dedicated to sovereignty, justice, and community action.

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by April Jones

About two years ago, I founded the Pinehurst Farmers Market in Columbia, South Carolina, when I saw that both grocery stores within walking distance of the Pinehurst neighborhood had closed suddenly. I realized that a food apartheid situation had been created in my community, and I knew something had to change.

Inspired by Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm at a Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference in Georgia, I chose to be the change I was looking for in my community. “If you’re looking for someone to save you, no one is coming. You’ll have to save yourself,” Penniman said.

Those words were a call to action to create a solution to the issue of food access in the Pinehurst neighborhood. My vision was to form a self-sustaining system that would create healthy, organic food options for the community, support the local economy, and give residents access to food sovereignty. As a result, I started the Pinehurst Farmers Market as an equitable, fair space for farmers and community members. The Pinehurst Farmers Market is committed to food justice and food sovereignty, and strives to create a spirit of self-reliance and community action. The market gives local farmers an opportunity to use their organic, regenerative growing methods and shared cultural experiences, with shared solidarity, to create food access for members of the Pinehurst community and residents throughout the city.

Farmers of Truly Good Food

My longtime friend Jason Roland of Organically Roland in Lexington, South Carolina, was the first farmer to join the Pinehurst Farmers Market. He specializes in unique, hard-to-find South Carolina heirloom seeds that are colorful and full of flavor.

The market has since grown to four farmers, including Greg Brown of Greenleaf Farms in Eastover, South Carolina, who offers organically grown produce from heirloom and heritage seeds. He specializes in unique and colorful produce, such as purple carrots, purple sweet potatoes, red carrots, red okra, and blue collards. Amanda Jones of Doko Farm, located in Blythewood, South Carolina, offers heritage pork, chicken, and turkey, all of which are listed on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. And Andrea Woods of Fire Barrel Farm in Gaston, South Carolina, offers Southern favorites, including shelled peas, okra, potatoes, onions, and peppers.

These farmers are all situated in the state of South Carolina, which has abundant farmland; rich, deep, and abiding foodways; and a long history of boosting the local food economy through small-scale farmers. Each farmer brings their specially cultivated and freshly harvested produce and meat to the market to serve the people in the community, and they’re committed to growing sustainable, nutrient-dense food. We offer the highest-quality produce available at reasonable prices, which gives the residents of the Pinehurst neighborhood access to truly good food.

During this unusual time, the Pinehurst Farmers Market is committed to encouraging our community to get back to the land and connect with nature. We’re striving to make vibrant, nutritious food available to the community. The farmers who plant the seeds are the ones who sell the final product, which guarantees that the customers receive the best product possible. That process ensures that the nutrients, flavor profile, and vibrant color are all retained within the food we sell. In addition, customers are able to learn about the seasonality of their produce, giving them the opportunity to be excited and thoughtful about what each harvest brings to their plate. The seasonality of the market also allows the customers to learn how to cook with different produce options.

Heritage and Honor

At the Pinehurst Farmers Market, we feel it’s important to regularly regenerate our knowledge base in order to increase our yield and bounty for our loyal customers. Each farmer is eager to learn new sustainable practices and become better stewards of the land. In doing so, our farmers research the histories of the seeds they select and learn how those seeds will do in the South Carolina soil. They receive seed-selection assistance from David Shields, a distinguished professor at the University of South Carolina. Shields has undertaken historical research that enabled the restoration of many of South Carolina’s heirloom crops, including ‘Purple Straw’ wheat, ‘Carolina African’ runner peanuts, ‘Purple Ribbon’ sugar cane, ‘Seashore Black Seed’ rye, rice peas, benne, and ‘Carolina Gold’ rice.

Shields’ knowledge of seed saving and harvesting allows the farmers to engage in local seed sovereignty. His expert advice guides them in growing rare, delicious, and locally specific crops that are adapted to the regional conditions. It also enables the customers to learn more about the history of crops they regularly see, and to more fully understand the history of South Carolina. Shields cultivates healthy communities through food education, allowing the farmers to reclaim the knowledge and reverence that prior South Carolinians had for the soil, history, and legacy of seeds. This deep knowledge of the food and its heritage is passed on from the farmers to their customers in their daily interactions.

The Pinehurst Farmers Market strives to honor the ancestral land of the local Natchez Tribe by promoting food sovereignty and food justice. One way we work toward that goal is by practicing regenerative methods that honor the land.

Robin “Buz” Kloot, professor in the department of environmental health sciences at the University of South Carolina, advises the farmers regarding soil health, crop rotation, and the use of cover crops. Kloot is an advocate for and expert in regenerative farming methods, especially soil conservation that benefits farmers, the environment, and public health by utilizing the interconnectedness of nature. His expertise helps the farmers better understand food and soil systems, maximizing soil health and biodiversity.

“If you follow the soil health revolution, you’ll notice that the drivers of this revolution are farmers,” Kloot says. Regenerative agriculture that uses polycultures and compost improves the soil and environment, creating an integrated, reawakened ecosystem that allows each plant to thrive and become nutrient-dense. When we allow biodiversity, our plants contain more nutrients, flavor, and color.

Members of the market were also able to attend the Organic Growers School 2020 Spring Conference, where we learned new sustainable growing skills and expanded on existing skill sets.

All of these resources help create a sense of harmony between our farmers and the community as we declare our accountability to each other and work toward mutual success. When the community comes together to support the farmers, it creates a deeper connection to the land and to the produce, because the customers feel like they’re a part of that success.

Strong Foundations

My family has roots in the South. My mother’s family is from Georgia, and my father’s family is from Louisiana. I have a long legacy of connection to the land. My maternal grandmother’s garden was always full of fresh produce; she was organic before it was “hip.” My grandmother was a frugal woman who taught me the value of hard work and dedication to a task, and I draw upon her legacy with the Pinehurst Farmers Market and conduct my social justice work in honor of her memory.

As a toddler living in California, I remember walking to the neighborhood organic food cooperative and watching my mother pour dry beans into paper bags. She would also stop on the way home from the public park to say hello to the street vegetable and fruit seller as she purchased avocados, limes, and lemons.

I draw on these memories as I create recipes in my kitchen using the freshest ingredients available to me. I know that the fresh smell of a lime invigorates the mind and calms the nervous system. Plant life begets human energy, and I strive to utilize the plant kingdom to keep my family physically and mentally fit. Being exposed to in-season produce taught me the benefits and value of the land, and that there’s a place for every vegetable, fruit, and season. I’m indebted to my family heritage for giving me a head start in unlocking the wisdom and secrets of the earth, and in gratitude, I lay a foundation of goodness in the Pinehurst community for others to take and spread to the outer regions of the world. Part of that foundation has been working with other passionate people in the Pinehurst Farmers Market to transform my neighborhood into a thriving hub of community engagement. Residents from surrounding areas join the “Pinehurst crew” and enjoy the fellowship and produce. Our farmers are able to grow specially cultivated food for their customers, and the community is able to move together toward greater health.

April Jones advocates for her community as part of the food justice and food sovereignty movement. She’s passionate about community, gardens, and farmers markets. Learn more here.

Listen to this! For more great information from April Jones, check out her podcast about food and health connections here.