FoodShare Columbia creators aim to eliminate city’s food deserts
Affordable fresh produce can be hard to find for Columbia families who live in “food deserts,” which are communities that lack grocery stores and supermarkets.
Two University of South Carolina researchers are working with community partners to change that with the launch of a new pilot program that brings healthy food to neighborhoods directly from the farmers.
“Our tagline is ‘FoodShare Columbia: Good health and food for all’,” said Beverly Wilson, who works at USC’s School of Medicine.
FoodShare Columbia offers residents an opportunity to purchase a box of fruits and vegetables at a low cost. Wilson came up with the idea 12 years ago when she created a bulk-buying program for her neighbors.
“When you buy in bulk you harness your buying power,” she said.
Wilson said she decided to spread the idea to help underserved communities gain access to fresh produce that would be affordable.
“It’s really tough when folks don’t have transportation and the nearest grocery store is a couple of miles away, but right in their neighborhood is five Quick Stops,” she said.
Each box contains between 12 and 15 varieties of produce, which is sourced locally and regionally primarily through Senn Brothers Produce. The food is delivered to the Katherine M. Bellfield Cultural Arts Center in the Booker Washington Heights neighborhood off Beltline Boulevard where it is sorted, boxed and picked up by customers every other Wednesday.
A box costs $20 and includes recipe cards. Families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program help or who have an electronic benefits transfer card pay only $10. The remaining cost is covered by South Carolina’s Healthy Bucks Program.
“It’s really an [great] format because as awesome as farmers’ markets are, they aren’t accessible to all people, especially those with no transportation,” said Carrie Draper, researcher and director of policy and partnership development at the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities.
FoodShare Columbia launched in May and is a partnership between the the city of Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, EdVenture Children’s Museum, Richland Library and the Columbia Housing Authority.
EdVenture offers cooking demonstrations to teach residents how to cook with the items in their boxes. Richland Library promotes its literacy programs.
The housing authority has helped link communities along Beltline Boulevard through North Columbia, Wilson said. The housing authority also offers a community outreach worker to deliver boxes to seniors or other residents as needed, according to Draper.
Wilson said 700 boxes have been purchased by participants, which represents about 12,000 pounds of food.
Wilson noted that the program is open to everyone regardless of socioeconomic status, but she said she hopes to target families who lack funds or transportation to get to a grocery store.
Wanda Austin, parks and recreation director for the Katherine M. Bellfield Cultural Arts Center, said she finds many low-income parents are intimidated by certain kinds of produce because they don’t know how to cook it.
“There are so many young parents that have not been passed down the tradition of how to cook,” she said.
Austin said the boxes have been filled with familiar foods like apples, oranges, bananas and spinach. But there have been some surprises.
“Kale,” she said. “They’ve never had it before.”
Austin said FoodShare Columbia has opened up new options for cuisine for the families in the neighborhoods surrounding the Katherine Bellfield Center. She said she’d like to see the number of SNAP recipients grow to ensure everyone is taking advantage of the program.
In the last order placed, 43 of the 120 people who signed up for a box were SNAP participants.
“I want the program to stay here in the building, and I want to see more SNAP participants take part in sharing recipes, and going home and experimenting with recipes,” she said.
Program volunteers and community partners are working on a staffing model to make the program a permanent fixture in Columbia.
Wilson said food has to be affordable and accessible and that families who receive the boxes need to know what to do with the foods they receive.
“This is my passion,” she said.