FoodShare South Carolina’s mission has become even more critical.
The Columbia-based nonprofit has been delivering healthy fruits and vegetables to Midlands residents since 2015. But COVID-19 concerns that have shuttered area restaurants and closed state schools have made access to fresh produce more challenging while also threatening the produce supply chain the organization relies on.
Through the initiative, customers purchase produce boxes, much like the ones FoodShare SC distributes through other, long-running community programs. Senn Brothers purchases the produces from local farmers and regional producers. It is then delivered to those who have placed orders and distributed from a central pickup point by neighborhood “captains.”
In addition to helping ensure access to fresh produce as increased demand coupled with disappearing markets strains supply, Farmers2Neighbors allows S.C Farmers Market workers recently laid off to return to work boxing and delivering the produce. The program also provides a distribution outlet for farmers who have fresh fruit and vegetables in danger of going to waste.
“Our families are able to get produce, their workers are able to come back to work, and it’s able to kind of serve as a safety net for both our community members and our supply chain during these uncertain times,” said Michelle Troup, director of culinary medicine for FoodShare SC. “Not only is it a way for us and our community to support our supply chain workers during this time, not only is it a way to get produce into households, but it’s a mechanism that we can use so folks aren’t having to get out into the grocery stores and these places that might have larger groups of people.
“They’re just going to their neighborhood captain — their neighborhood association president, the lady they’ve known for years who lives down the street — and picking up a box of produce.”
Though in its infancy, the program has already generated interest, Troup said.
“The response has been pretty great,” she said. “We have about 15 neighborhood captains who have signed up. They are folks in the community who have said, 'Hey, this is something I’m interested in and passionate about. I have the ability and the time and the space to be able to help.' They are set up all across the greater Columbia area to be able to get a delivery.”
With schools closed through April and restaurants limited to offering pickup and delivery for the foreseeable future, Troup said FoodShare SC has seen an uptick in people contacting the nonprofit.
“We’ve definitely had a surge in phone calls and Facebook messages and emails and online applications for folks who are reaching out and saying, hey, I need help,” she said. “There’s just a lot of uncertainty and anxiety right now in general, and so we’re doing our best to be a source of both tangible resources, where people can come and say I have this need that’s been met, but also a source of hope and of community togetherness in a time where we can’t be together, letting folks know hey, you have these people in your neighborhood. You might not be able to go over to their house and hang out, but they really care about you, and they’re sacrificing some of their time and energy to be able to serve as a neighborhood captain so that you can still get fresh produce.”
Farmers Market workers will use gloves and sanitizing products, FoodShare SC said, and volunteers will practice social distancing in picking up and delivering boxes, which will be placed in vehicle trunks with no hand-to-hand contact.
The boxes cost $21, or $10 for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants. Organization registration and individual signup is available online.
“We are a produce distributor at our core,” Troup said. “We try to get fresh fruits and vegetables into the homes of families who traditionally might not have access to those fruits and vegetables, whether it’s because they live in a food desert or because the produce is priced at a point where they can’t access it in a traditional retail setting. That’s our passion. We don’t exist without our produce suppliers, without our local distributors like Senn, without our farmers.
“It’s really important for us to be a good partner to them in this time, to make sure that we’re doing our part, so that when we come on the other side of this health concern (and) this community rallying around restrictions for COVID-19, we still have a produce supply chain that can support the need.”