Clemson Extension working to eliminate ‘food deserts’ through Feeding Innovation program
ANDERSON — Gloria Brown had a vision to bring a market and produce stand back to her south Anderson community. It would be a place to buy fresh food and, perhaps just as importantly, a “neighborhood hub” like the one she remembers as a child when her grandmother moved to the area.
“No amount of money was too small for us to beg her to go to the store,” Brown said. “At that time, 25 cents could buy you 25 cookies or my favorite, 25 Tootsie Rolls. … This is where the neighbors could come together; it kept you connected to your neighbors. And I want to bring that back to the neighborhood.”
Brown was the winner of the seed capital award through Feeding Innovation Anderson, which culminated in December with entrepreneurs pitching their healthy food business plans to a panel of judges at the city of Anderson Economic Development office.
An eight-week small business training program that provides entrepreneurs with the framework and skills needed to develop and grow a healthy food business, Feeding Innovation allowed Clemson Agribusiness Extension agent Will Culler and expert facilitators to use an interactive process to help participants create or expand their business plans by evaluating their business models and strategies and clarifying their market niches, pricing structures and financial health.
A partnership between the South Carolina Community Loan Fund and Clemson Extension, Feeding Innovation aims to support entrepreneurs interested in developing or expanding healthy food enterprises in underserved areas of the state. Participants were required to focus on increasing access to healthy food in those areas, known as “food deserts.”
As of 2014, a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that more than 1 million low-income South Carolinians live in food deserts: areas more than one mile from a grocery store that have limited access to other outlets, such as corner stores, farmers markets, food hubs and mobile markets.
Further, these communities exist in every region of the state, from the Upstate to the Pee Dee to the Lowcountry, untapped economic development opportunities across South Carolina. Residents of food deserts in the state spend approximately $311 million annually on groceries outside of their local communities, commonly referred to as grocery store leakage, according to a report from the S.C. Food Access Task Force.
“South Carolina is covered with food deserts,” Culler said. “You’re talking about lack of access to healthy foods and available foods; you’re talking about malnutrition. This program is all about increasing and helping gain access to healthy foods throughout the state. There’s a lot of poverty right now in rural areas — and always has been in some of the areas — and many of those areas only have food retailers that don’t really offer healthy foods. They have a lot of prepackaged foods that are really a primary cause of obesity.”
Culler said approximately 95 businesses have taken advantage of the classes in the nine cycles he has overseen and the healthy food markets that the Feeding Innovation program targets are aimed specifically at bringing healthier food options to their communities.
He pointed to Brown’s business model as the epitome of that ideal.
“We only accept entrepreneurs into the program that are going to help alleviate a food desert and bring healthy foods to a food desert in some area of the state,” he said. “And you see the results tonight. They’ve done an excellent job with pitching their product and selling themselves. We bring in specialists from Clemson to offer expertise to the classes. We are a land-grant institution, and that means developing resources for the people of South Carolina. And through this program, we are working toward economic development in rural areas of the state.”
Brown’s business, Southside Market & Produce Stand — like all the businesses in the program — aims to alleviate the food desert that exists in her community.
Brown said her fresh produce would come directly from local farmers in Anderson and surrounding areas, providing a healthy alternative for residents in her neighborhood for whom she said the only existing options for grocery items within walking distance were dollar-store retailers. The nearest grocery store is 1.9 miles away.
The Feeding Innovation program, Brown said, allowed her to take a vision she had in her mind and heart and bring it to fruition.
“It was something I wanted to do; I just didn’t know how to start,” she said. “Coming to these classes and getting the different resources each week — even if I didn’t win, I had enough resources to get me started. To tell you the truth, I didn’t come in to win; I just came in to get the information. Learning how to start a business and writing a business plan and the steps to starting to business, I learned all of that through this program.”
The South Carolina Community Loan Fund is a nonprofit organization created to loan money to individuals and businesses in low-income communities with the mission “to put money where banks can’t go,” according to Brendan Buttimer, community development loan officer for the Upstate.
“Clemson Extension has been a partner with us from the beginning, with Will facilitating and doing the next-level training,” Buttimer said. “They are also great partners with helping to find potential entrepreneurs and organizations that might be interested in participating in the program, as well. These presentations get better and better each time, and these tonight were really, really good.”
One of the program’s participants, Sandra Metzdorf, of With These Hands Natural Gourmet Foods in Sumter, said she found out about the program through the S.C. Farm to Institution Summit in Greenville in the summer of 2018 and that the classes had been “multi-tiered” to be beneficial to her business planning in a number of areas.
“First, the networking with the other participants is great,” she said. “It’s great to be in a room with like-minded thinkers that are working toward the same goal: to provide healthy food access. Sometimes it feels for us in Sumter that you’re kind of the only one. So even though I have to drive three hours each way once a week to make it [to the program], it was great to be with other teammates.
“It was also great to learn from the subject matter experts that Will Culler brought from Clemson,” Metzdorf said. “There were experts in legal, there were experts in marketing, there were experts in financing, so that was great to learn from them. And, ultimately, having an actual business plan that you can hold is a powerful thing. It’s a completed document that helps build that momentum to really help you think about the future of your business.”
The city of Anderson plans to continue the momentum of Brown’s business and the program’s other graduates in the Anderson area by offering Business Assistance Program Grants, New Business Checklists and Business Support Programs
Mary Haley Thompson, project manager for city of Anderson Economic Development, called it “an honor to partner with both Clemson Extension and the S.C. Community Loan Fund.”
“Your service opened doors for so many across South Carolina, and, of course those participants who will touch the Anderson area,” she said. “As Brendan and Will emphasized so many times, there is so much value in the program not only through business plan development, but through the networking opportunities and life-long connections one makes along the way. … Southside Market & Produce Stand will put a water fountain in the dead center of a huge desert.”