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Cities use food to build community

​It all started with a piece of land that nobody knew what to do with.

Landrum Farmers Market 
Landrum Farmers Market. Photo: City of Landrum.

City of Landrum officials were hoping someone would build a house on the awkward, rectangular acre, even though there was a bog on it that flowed with water in the summertime.

But when a prospective buyer offered a very low bid, Landrum officials decided to change course and find a better use for it. Early this year, Landrum City Administrator Rich Caplan approached the local school district superintendent with the offer of letting students use it as a vegetable garden.

"He said, 'Terrific,'" Caplan recalled. And so for $1 per month, the city began leasing the land to the school district for its Landrum High School agriculture students.

The students are expected to design and build raised garden boxes in the fall. They haven't decided what to do with the vegetables they'll harvest, but options include selling the produce at the Landrum Farmers Market, serving it in the school cafeteria to encourage healthy eating or donating the produce to local food banks. Meanwhile, a local florist found out about the city's plans with the high school and wanted to get involved.

"He said, 'What's going to happen there?'" said Caplan. "'I could maybe contribute a greenhouse.'"

The florist wanted the students to grow flowers that he could then buy to sell in his shop, further linking the students to their community and local economy.

"I could have hugged him," said Caplan. "We didn't advertise that."

The City of Landrum, which is close to the North Carolina border, has applied for a grant to supply the students with gardening tools and a shed from a community foundation that serves the city but is located in Polk County, North Carolina.

With its 1 acre of land and a creative plan, Landrum leaders are in a position to build connections among city government, the public schools, a local business and its customers, and potentially even a local food bank and its clientele, if those programs receive some of the students' fresh vegetables.

Learning to cook with local produce
Landrum is not the only city that has found a way to strengthen community bonds through its strategic use of food.

In the City of Mauldin, mobile cooking demonstrations by an area restaurant will show visitors to the city farmers market how to turn the fresh, local produce for sale there into healthy meals.

"The local aspect of it is when you show people that it's really easy to cook with fresh ingredients, and they find out at the market that those ingredients are extremely accessible — you can grab 'em and make (meal) plans for the weekend and week — it connects them with those farmers," said Keira Kitchings, director of Mauldin Cultural Center, which is part of city government.

Last year the owner of a restaurant and catering business in nearby Greenville brought his mobile burners and equipment to the market and gave demonstrations.

"They go around and look at what vendors are selling that day and come up with recipes on the fly," said Kitchings.

"Last year, they created this really easy and really healthy dish that people could do themselves. It shows people, 'Hey, find some local ingredients and find 10 minutes of time, and you've got dinner.'"

Bon Secours St. Francis Health System sponsors the BeWell Mauldin Market, but the city operates it. The market runs for three months starting in June. It also offers small-group fitness classes in the amphitheater and sells local produce, dairy, eggs, honey, baked goods and gifts.

Homegrown food entrepreneurs
In the City of Walterboro, the Colleton Commercial Kitchen operates a culinary incubator where several area entrepreneurs have honed their skills with the help of kitchen infrastructure and training and then sell their goods onsite with the goal of opening a storefront in the city.

Colleton Commercial Kitchen trainees
Colleton Commercial Kitchen trainees. Photo: City of Walterboro.

"We're one of those small towns overrun with fast food options and few local options," said Matt Mardell, kitchen program manager.

"This helps us add more local options to the market, and as we say in Walterboro, 'We like to keep our bucks in the 'boro,' to ensure that the money that we spend here stays in this economy."

Mardell said, in addition to strengthening the local economy, the growth of unique, local businesses shapes the city's identity.

Others are noticing. The Colleton Commercial Kitchen, which is part of Colleton County government, draws entrepreneurs from the region and attracts tour groups sometimes as large as 80 people, along with officials from other South Carolina cities and towns who want to learn how the incubator works.

"Quite often tour groups will call (the Walterboro tourism office) and then arrange to come to our facility for a tour, get lunch, visit our museum and marketplace," he said.

"We are one big connected facility with the Colleton Museum and Farmers Market, so it's a very popular spot with tourists."

The city welcome center also helps advertise the incubator.

"When big events come to town, quite often we are the first two organizations involved in coming together on a planning committee, and we are sought out for our event space, food producers, storage and tourist attractions," said Mardell.

He said the city tourism staff also works with the kitchen staff on local boards, such as the Eat Smart Move More board.

"The city is excited to feature and partner with the Colleton Commercial Kitchen when approached by potential new events hoping to come to Walterboro," said Michelle Strickland, Walterboro's tourism director.

In this respect, the commercial kitchen advances community development by driving commerce, crowds and festivity to the city's downtown.

The event space, capacity for food delivery, storage and preparation, and general logistics are major benefits to any event held in the city, Strickland said.

An example was the FestiVELO event. It brought more than 300 bicyclists to Walterboro for five days and four nights in November of 2016. It is returning again this November with even bigger plans for the greater Historic Downtown District and potentially greater attendance.

"The Colleton Commercial Kitchen is a key piece in moving Walterboro forward," said Hank Amundson, Walterboro's assistant city manager.