Just what can you fit on a bus these days?
For food trucks, you can satisfy your cravings for rotis, bánh mìs, and Japanese crêpes. Eyewear retailer Warby Parker has retrofitted a bus into a retail shop on wheels that travels the country. Swimsuit label Faherty Brothers rolled their own mobile beach boutique through Charleston last summer. Come this summer, you can add farmers market to the list of businesses roaming throughout various locations in Charleston.
Lowcountry Street Grocery, founded by College of Charleston grad Lindsey Barrow, is hoping to deliver the farmers market experience via a retrofitted bus. Patrons of local farmers markets may find the scale of packing a produce bazaar into a mobile version daunting. But plenty of outlying communities lack such markets, and in the most dire of cases, even grocery stores stocking fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by.
Barrow wants to remedy that problem. The Roanoke, Va. native's love of growing food and his passion for food justice culminated in 2012 when he was a legislative aide for Corinne W.L. Ching, Hawaii state representative. There he worked with Ching on drafting diabetes-focused legislation, and took it upon himself to introduce a farmers market in her district. The project was a success and got his ideas for the Lowcountry Street Grocery percolating upon his return to Charleston.
The mobile aspect of the project is aimed at addressing individuals in food deserts lack of access to fresh and unprocessed foods. "We're taking healthy food into communities that have no access," says Barrow. "We're not gonna sit around and talk about it anymore because we know it's an issue." It's an issue that continues to impact the Lowcountry. According to the USDA, close to 60 percent of people in Charleston County have low access to a supermarket. For low income groups that may not have a car, the effects on their health can be serious.
Lowcountry Street Grocery hopes to become the state's second benefit corporation, a classification for businesses that answer to the triple bottom lines of societal and environmental impact as well as traditional profits. "We're willing to give up the additional 15 to 20 percent profit that we would make every year in order to address food deserts," says Barrows.
But this social entrepreneur understands that a focus on inclusion and profitable markets will help to advance Lowcountry Street Grocery's mission. Barrow has visions of the truck rolling into I'On and Byrnes Downs with the same gusto as Chicora-Cherokee. "What we're doing is trying to incorporate all communities," says Barrows. "A lot of the money that we make in affluent neighborhoods will funnel into our mission."
Much like the way brick-and-mortar retailers alter their merchandise mix based on the community demographics of each store, so too will Lowcountry Street Grocery adjust their offerings to the areas they serve. "What we're offering in each market will certainly fluctuate, but it will definitely be market specific," he says. Assessing such demand, however, is no easy task.
Despite advanced market research and discussions with community leaders, Barrow concedes that there's much about the business that will remain undiscovered until their bus is out on the open road. The pilot program will run through June and July, hoping to make three stops a day, five days a week. "We're just going to continually take notes, tracking data about customer preferences and product demand," says Barrow. In addition to crops grown from a donated farm in Andrews, the bus will also stock produce from partnering farms.
Barrow and company also working on various partnerships with private corporations. One idea being fine tuned is a pick-your-own CSA, of sorts, in conjunction with the Charleston RiverDogs. Fans would be able to order fruits and vegetables a la carte from that weekend's available yields and pick up their box at the end of the ballgame. Other ideas being ironed out would help to increase the buying power of SNAP recipients by doubling their purchasing power when such funds were used for fresh produce.
The financial realities of running a business have impeded some early environmental ambitions of the project, like running their two buses on biofuel. "It's just going to cost us way too much money," says Barrows. "It's going to be a continuing goal though."
After months of planning, the company is facing the crucial challenge of raising enough capital to see their mission come to life. A fundraiser will be taking place at the newly opened Palace Hotel restaurant at 35 Hanover St. on May 8 and a Kickstarter campaign will launch later in May. The funds will primarily be used to retrofit their first bus into a mobile market.
At the end of the day, Barrow sees Lowcountry Street Grocery's potential to eradicate food deserts as the friendly Charleston thing to do. "We win the best city three years in a row. Less than two miles up the road from some of the best restaurants in Charleston we have people living farther beneath the poverty line than anywhere else in the state. How can we take pride in being the best city in the country when we can't take care of our neighbors?"