Kelly Sharkey

Got an idea for bringing healthy food to residents of Beaufort County’s food deserts?

If so, you could win $20,000 to launch or expand your existing business through Feeding Innovation, an eight-week program for local entrepreneurs presented by the nonprofit South Carolina Community Loan Fund.

The class will meet weekly March 11 through May 6, but the deadline to apply is Feb. 28. A $100 deposit is required, which will be refunded upon completion of the course.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 250,000 South Carolina residents live in a “food desert,” or underserved area. That means those residents live between 1 and 10 miles from a supermarket that sells affordable and healthy food.

Kelly Sharkey, program manager for the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, says this will be the first time Feeding Innovation has been held in Bluffton. It is offered twice a year in locations throughout South Carolina.

“Healthy food stores are really challenging across the board,” she said. “A lot of grocery stores are closing. It’s hard to keep them up and running because the margins for profit are so low. The ones that work tend to be small, independently run grocery stores.”

Feeding Innovation uses curriculum from Clemson University’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences to teach entrepreneurs how to successfully start and operate a healthy food business. Topics include marketing, acc ounting and finance, how to patent your idea and how to file articles of incorporation. By the end of the course, each participant will have a well-developed business plan.

Then, participants will pitch their ideas to a panel of Feeding Innovation judges. The winning business plan will receive $20,000 in seed capital.

“We look at each plan to see if it fulfills our mission and how much it will impact the community,” Sharkey said. “We’ll also consider whether or not it’s a viable project – if we give them this seed money, can they actually use it? We look at the feasibility of their idea.

“We’re also looking for plans that serve a low-income census tract,” she added. “If it’s in a food desert, we want to know how many low-income or minority workers it would employ. And we look for businesses run by females, African Americans or military veterans.”

The South Carolina Community Loan Fund’s mission focuses on serving four lending areas: community facilities, small businesses, affordable housing and healthy food access.

Since the program began in 2014, more than 90 entrepreneurs across the state have received $125 million in seed capital from Feeding Innovation. The award was recently increased from $12,500 to $20,000, thanks to support from the Blue Cross Blue Shield South Carolina Foundation.

To date, Feeding Innovation has produced 68 healthy food business plans that range from plant-based meal delivery to community gardens to mobile grocery stores.

Sharkey said successful entrepreneurs share one trait: “Passion. With any entrepreneur it takes so much dedication and sacrifice. I’m always in awe of our participants.”

Laura Gray is a freelancer who writes about life in the Lowcountry.