As Germaine Jenkins confidently chomped on a weedy-looking plant’s stem and flowers, a group of moms and dads tentatively followed her lead.
It tasted like broccoli – which made sense, since the plant was a broccoli that had bolted, growing tall stems and delicate yellow flowers. Most gardeners work hard to prevent bolting, but Jenkins allows this natural process at Fresh Future Farm in North Charleston, since this is what produces seeds for next year’s crop.
In addition to the broccoli, the parents got to taste borage and several types of mint as they toured the farm, which Jenkins established in 2014 on the grounds of the old Chicora Elementary School, one block off of Rivers Avenue.
“There was nothing here in 2014 but grass,” Jenkins told the group. “And fire ants.”
The parents were part of the nation Healthy Families America program, which is run locally by MUSC Children’s Health. It’s a voluntary home-visiting program with the goal of preventing child abuse and neglect.
Pediatrician Luke Edmondson, MD., oversees the grant that funds MUSC’s program. It’s something he wishes he could offer to every new mother, but funding limitations mean it’s restricted to children considered at risk because of the young age of the mother, low education levels, poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, lack of social support or past Department of Social Services involvement.
Family support specialists make regular visits to each family’s home, where they talk about child development milestones; offer ideas for activities; and help families to access resources for food, housing, education, child care or other needs. Many of the families are immigrants from Mexico or Central America, so language and cultural education is also a component.
The pandemic was particularly challenging to the program’s typical operations. Home visits were replaced by virtual visits. The family support specialists might swing by a family’s home to drop off food or diapers on the doorstep. But Edmondson was surprised and pleased that families didn’t give up on the program during that time. Most remained engaged.
And on this beautiful blue-sky day, the families gathered together for a bit of community bonding and a bit of learning about organic gardening and nutrition.
The event was held to mark Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Jenkins, who sits on the local Healthy Families America community advisory board, shared some of her personal story – how she arrived in Charleston as a single mother with a 3-year-old and 18-month-old. She talked about how it could be stressful, trying to figure out how to pay bills and to get nutritious food for her children. But she also discovered the calming power of nature.
“For some reason, when I stuck my hands in the soil, a lot of answers came,” she said.
Jenkins’ children are now grown and help with running the farm. Jenkins started it with the idea of providing fresh, healthy food to a neighborhood that lost its last grocery store back in 2005. There’s a small grocery store on site, which sells the produce on a sliding scale and hires locals at a livable wage.
“Along with the vitamins and the beautiful space, we’re growing community,” Jenkins said. “The idea is that if we can figure it out here, then other communities can come together and figure out how to do something similar.”
Jenkins noted that although the produce within the farm is sold, anything that grows over the fence is free for foraging.
“I get excited when I see peach pits because I know the kids are tasting a food that tastes like what their parents would have eaten, without chemicals. It has a lot of flavor and nutrients when you pick it right off the tree,” she said.
After the farm tour, the parents split into two groups. One group helped to lay down wood chips, which suppress weeds and retain water during hot summers, and the other group used some of the site-grown produce to create a chicken pasta salad with a light vinaigrette.
Then, the entire group of parents, children and program staff sat down to enjoy the locally grown, delicious meal.