By: Rixon Lane
From a distance, the tent looked almost identical to the others that lined Greene Street. However, the conversations with Mandy Churchwell were different from the others taking place during the Healthy Carolina Farmers Market on Tuesday morning.
The owner of The Veggie Patch in Neeses, SC, Churchwell seemed to recognize almost every student who approached her tent. If it was all an act, it was convincing.
"Hi sweetie, how are you? You were here last week—no, it was two weeks ago," she says with a smile
Churchwell, and her mother Phyllis, have brought their produce to USC's campus for the last six years. However, Churchwell says the chance to sell their fruits and vegetable isn't what she enjoys most about the treks to Columbia.
"We've stayed with it this long because we've had so many repeat customers," Churchwell says. "We've seen freshmen go all the way through to seniors. We've met people from Russia, China, Iran, Switzerland, Germany, all over."
One of those repeat customers is senior James Armstrong, who says his visits to the farmers market have created a bond with vendors like Churchwell.
"I've been involved with sustainable Carolina ever since I was a freshman and [I've] created this bond with the farmer's market that I have in my heart," Armstrong says. "I see the same faces, shake the same hands, eat the same foods pretty much every week."
The Healthy Carolina Farmers Market features vendors from all over the state; Churchwell makes the 45-minute drive from Orangeburg County every Tuesday the market is on campus. Churchwell and her mother grow their own produce, but their plants have just gone in the ground. They brought fruits and vegetables shipped in from other farms for Tuesday's market.
Churchwell says that it's not just students who enjoy the fresh food.
"Mrs. Pastides [wife of USC president Harris Pastides], she buys produce from the Veggie Patch," says Churchwell. "We have one person down where we live who grows organic strawberries and he only has a couple of them, so every time they come in, I make sure she gets some."
Some students don't speak much English but Churchwell is happy to help them pick out anything they need. She convinced a group of Japanese students to try their first sweet potatoes in March and they returned Tuesday for more recipes.
"We try to tell them how to cook it and prepare it," Churchwell says, "and they go home and come back and usually get some more."