Everything in sight is green. To the right, sunlight reflects off smooth butter lettuce and to the left, crunchy kale sprouts from the ground. I look down at my muddy boots and realize that there is an ultimate source I rarely consider – Earth.
Most people do not think about the origin that precedes the grocery store; they buy the okay-looking fluorescent strawberries and then throw away the plastic packaging. They do not think about who grew it, how it was grown or what it left behind. It is time to think about our actions, particularly the smallest ones that are carried out each and every day. College is the time in life in which we make decisions that define us as people and form habits to carry us into adulthood. Recognize that by making a purchase, you make a choice – and an awfully important one at that. That purchase propagates a whole history of production and an entire series of consequences.
I sat down with Lowcountry Local First, a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating an economy anchored in local ownership. What are we choosing when we choose local? We choose our environment, our health and our community.
Brian Wheat, Director of Sustainable Agriculture, showed me around the Middleton Place farm to discuss what supporting local farmers really means. He runs the Growing New Farmers program at Lowcountry Local First, which gives people an opportunity to join the local food system through curriculum-based instruction and hands-on experience. The program has grown a network of over 146 new farmers, trained in soil health and composting, integrated pest and disease management, food safety, good agricultural practices and more. He emphasizes that the people who join this program and pursue careers as local farmers do so because they want to incorporate “some kind of give back in their life, they want to do some kind of good and they see growing their own food and growing food for the community as a way to do that.” This giving philosophy translates to dedication to sustainable and organic practices.
We hear “buy organic” a lot, but what does that really mean? It means adding back to the environment what you are taking away. Mr. Wheat has dedicated his life to promoting these nature-friendly practices. He recognizes that through farming, you are inherently taking away from the Earth, but we have the ability to produce food and contribute to the food system without being detrimental to it. Avoiding harm to the food system means avoiding synthetic inputs and supporting a well-established soil base that allows you to limit extra fertilizers and pesticides. “Healthy soil means healthy stuff; healthy stuff means healthy food,” says Brian Wheat.
Imagine sorting through piles of produce and throwing a worn tomato in a crinkly green bag. Then picture picking up a plump red tomato at the James Island Farmers Market. It should be obvious that fresh, local produce is healthier. It has not been coated in pesticides to survive the trek across country, losing nutrients and wasting fuel along the way. Buying local means supporting a healthy life for yourself, but also for your community. Organizations like Lowcountry Street Grocery, a mobile farmer’s market designed to bring affordable, healthy and local food across Charleston, bridge the gap between individual nutrition and community-wide health (lowcountrystreetgrocery.com). College of Charleston graduate and founder, Lindsey Barrow Jr., saw a community need and an opportunity to naturally leverage one market to support the other. This cooperative structure based on mutually beneficial giving avoids a reliance on grants, fundraisers and toxic charity (a reliance on one-sided giving that perpetuates a suppressive hierarchal system.) It addresses imbalances in our community. Charleston has been rated as the number one city in the world but there are children here that live further beneath the poverty line than anywhere else in the state. When you board the revamped retro green bus, rock out to some 70’s classic rock and buy your weekly greens, you are supporting nutritional access for the entire community.
“Go after the good work, people notice it and appreciate it. It transcends to your surroundings and will eventually start a trend,” said Barrow.
Buying from any business who supports local, offers benefits you may have never considered. Jordan Amaker, Director of Marketing and Communications at Lowcountry Local First, points out that supporting a local business helps protect the character of place – what makes Charleston unique. This investment supports tourism and the local economy. With every 100 dollars spent at a chain store, an average of 14 dollars is reinvested in the community. For every 100 dollars spent at a local store, an average of 45 dollars is reinvested in the community. If our community is self-reliant and the national economy crashes, we are safe due to sustainable practicing.
Supporting local is easy with events and resources provided by Lowcountry Local First and Lowcountry Street Grocery. Check the weekly bus route on the Lowcountry Street Grocery website or social media pages. Visit your local farmer’s market and utilize the Local First eat local guide to see what’s in season; check if those radishes were really grown locally and ask important questions like “what do your animals eat, and where do they live?” Then follow Mr. Barrow’s advice and cook up a creative meal with the farmer’s market finds. Go to restaurants located on the farm fresh food guide, like Queen Street Grocery, and ask if they can recommend a dish that utilizes local protein or produce. Join initiatives like Buy Local Month (starting November 15) and Eat Local Month (starting April 1), which encourages the community to shift their spending. You can get involved through their website (lowcountrylocalfirst.org) or app, and dedicate 10 dollars of your weekly spending to local sources. If you want to really immerse yourself in this movement, consider applying for the Growing New Farmers program or email about volunteer and internship opportunities at Lowcountry Local First.
As Mr. Wheat says, “We can choose how we spend our energy and time and do good with that.” So next time you go grocery shopping or decide to eat out with friends – think about your options and make a conscious choice to invest your energy and time into something you can feel good about.