For many low-income neighborhoods in Florence, a gas station’s selection of food essentials is often the only viable option when grocery shopping.
Several neighborhoods in Florence are described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “food deserts” – meaning significant portions of these primarily impoverished communities don’t have easy access to a supermarket or grocery store.
Officials say this fact has led to detrimental effects on the physical health of minorities in the city, as well as hurting local farmers and restaurants who are feeling the economic repercussions from the lack of a sustainable market.
City Manager Drew Griffin said preliminary plans are in place to begin a food overlay district, or food hub, in Florence that will essentially allow local farmers to market and distribute their products directly to consumers.
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“Our desire is to create a district that will service restaurants and businesses downtown, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods where fresh food isn’t available,” he said. “This food corridor district would be designed to facilitate light manufacturing from locally sourced produce in an urban location.”
Over time, the hub would include a seven-day-a-week farmer’s market, a warehouse, a food node that would allow drop-off and dispersion of local foods and the addition of a variety of food-processing centers.
Griffin said anything from bread baking and honey production, to coffee roasting, meat packaging and micro-brewing could potentially have a place in the food corridor. The idea is to cut out the middle man, shorten supply chains and lower costs for both the farmer and consumer.
The food overlay district would be situated along NB Baroody Street, and play into the continuing process of revitalizing downtown Florence and adjacent neighborhoods.
Scotty Davis, director of community services and human resources for the city, said low access to healthy foods affects primarily minorities and plays into the larger narrative of obesity and cardiovascular problems in this state.
“Generally speaking, our primarily African-American areas are lower income and have the highest susceptibility to obesity, poor health and diet. South Carolina is the heart attack and stroke capital of the United States and Florence has some of the highest rates in the state,” Davis said. “There are direct links between poor health practices and the lack of fresh food markets.”
He said many people may not have adequate transportation to get to a grocery store five miles from their home. Instead they opt for gas station food that has no nutritional value but is convenient and cheap.
“A lot of the foods that are easily accessible to these neighborhoods are generally poor quality and highly processed, which continues to exacerbate the obesity rates and poor health in those areas,” Davis said. “This would give these communities readily available, reasonably priced, locally sourced foods on a daily basis.”
He said that even though the convenience of “corner store” shopping has become ingrained in many urban minds, having access to fresh, affordable foods would have long-term positive effects for minorities in Florence.
STATEWIDE FOOD NODE
The USDA estimates that an average of $10 billion of the food grown in South Carolina is sold and consumed outside the state each year.
Griffin said a food node in Florence would coincide with similar hubs set in urban areas in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville to get South Carolinians buying locally sourced products.
“We’re an agrarian state, and the Pee Dee is even better situated to grow some type of crop, essentially, all four seasons of the year,” he said. “Dozens of farmers in Florence and Darlington counties are growing produce locally but have no affordable way to distribute it.”
Griffin said Florence-area businesses – such as Red Bone Alley, Victor’s Bistro, Rebel Pie, the Clay Pot, among others – have shown interest in the “farm to table” model of cooking but have no market to buy the ingredients locally.
Phillip Lookadoo, director of Florence’s Planning, Research and Development Department, is part of the working group in charge of handling the details of the food hub.
He said even though plans are in the preliminary stages, the city could have plans on the table by next spring.