After eight weeks of training and planning, Feeding Innovation Florence participants gathered at Victor’s restaurant on Monday evening to pitch their healthy food business plans to a panel of judges. The participant with the strongest plan and presentation would receive $12,500 in seed capital for their business. Each participant drew a number and was given five minutes to present their plans followed by a ten minute question and answer session with the judges.

The night began with a presentation from John and Cathy Andrews with Shamballa Gardens. Shamballa Gardens teaches elementary schools, families, and individuals to grow healthy vegetables using the Square Foot Garden Method. John is the only certified square food gardener in Florence, trained to teach the method of gardening which is known to produce the highest yield in the smallest amount of space. The organization also teaches maintenance techniques such as pest control, and provides instruction on cooking and preserving food. Shamballa gardens is a 501(c)(3) seeking to serve more local communities and as such is pursuing funding to support their growth by offsetting administrative and marketing costs.

Tim Waters was second in line to pitch, delivering a succinct presentation on his plan for a 24 hour Save-a-Lot store in Florence. The store will provide access to healthy, affordable food to residents in downtown Florence and the surrounding food desert community. Waters will utilize a profit-sharing model and e-commerce site to create a more sustainable business model. He has developed a number of partners in his mission including Honor Capital, LLC. Waters is seeking funding to offset the costs of training, the POS system, and e-commerce site development for the store.

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The final presentation was delivered by Marcus Howard from Pee Dee Mobile Farmers Market (PDMFM), a start-up nonprofit focusing on selling produce in five food desert communities within the Pee Dee Region. PDMFM will be the first and only mobile farmers market in the region, scheduling stops at various sites within low-income communities including schools, churches, and apartment complexes. All product will be sourced from the Pee Dee Food Hub and will change based on the produce that is available from the food hub farmers. Education is an important component the PDMFM’s business plan and understanding that it is easier to teach new habits to children than adults, they will work to educate and make healthy eating fun for the region’s youth population.

The finalists presented three strong business plans to the judges leaving them with a tough decision to make. After nearly 30 minutes of deliberation the judges returned to the room, announcing Marcus Howard, founder and Executive Director of Pee Dee Mobile Farmers Market as the winner of Feeding Innovation Florence, and the $12,500 seed capital award. Marcus plans to use the award toward purchasing, retrofitting, and equipping the bus that will serve as the site for his mobile market. Marcus, who also works as the Family Services Coordinator at Habitat for Humanity of Horry County, is passionate about serving the community and providing a hand-up to those who need them the most. “I just can’t believe this is actually happening,” Marcus remarked, smiling. He told SCCLF he is eager to connect with owners of similar food businesses throughout the state and work with the community to turn his vision for the mobile farmers market into a reality.

Feeding Innovation is a comprehensive technical assistance program designed to support entrepreneurs interested in developing or expanding healthy food enterprises in underserved areas of the state. The goal of the program is to increase access to healthy food while supporting the development of strong, local entrepreneurs and community-based businesses. Support for this program came from the Clemson Extension, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation, and the City of Florence.