Columbia is a vast food desert, but Gamecock Pantry, USC's campus food pantry, and FoodShare, an inexpensive fresh food program in Columbia, are using their resources to nourish the Columbia community.
Gamecock Pantry's mission is to eliminate food insecurity among college students, which most people don't realize is a common issue, according to Qunilan Mewborne, the Gamecock Pantry's director of outreach and education.
"There are no Walmart's around, there are no Aldi's around, and so the pantry is really seeking to fill into that space and provide a resource for students to have access to nutritious, filling meals," Qunilan Mewborne, the Gamecock Pantry's director of outreach and education, said. "Columbia is a food desert, and if you don't have a car, it is difficult to get to the grocery store."
Mewborne, who is a fourth-year neuroscience and philosophy student, said food insecurity comes in multiple forms.
"Food insecurity can be anywhere from 'my pantry is literally bare', it can be 'I was going to buy food, but I had to buy textbooks, so I'm just going to miss a few lunches' and it can be 'I have eaten peanut butter for the past three meals," Mewborne said.
Food insecurity is the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life, usually due to a lack of financial resources within a household, according to Feeding America.
"Depending on the study you're looking at, between 42% and around 50% of college students are food insecure," Mewborne said.
According to Mewborne, most students don't consider themselves to be food insecure, and some don't know the pantry even exists.
"They'll [first-time visitors] open the door and they're sort of cautious," said Mewborne. "You say 'Welcome! Have you been here before?' and they say 'no' and you say, 'We're the Gamecock Pantry, Welcome! We are a free on campus food resource for students where you can pick up about 15 items for free every single week.'"
Apart from canned foods, the pantry often receives donations from select locations such as fresh bread and bagels from Panera Bread, donuts from Krispy Kreme, and prior to the pandemic, some produce from Whole Foods. Additionally, they have a connection with the Carolina Community Garden.
Mewborne said the pantry's goal is to continue to raise more awareness overall.
"I was volunteering during my shift yesterday, and we had three upperclassmen come in who never heard of us," Mewborne said. "They're just shocked that it's been here the whole time…that's always one of our bigger struggles, is making sure that the people who need to know about the pantry find out about us and feel welcome coming in."
Outside of USC's campus, FoodShare is another organization working to end food insecurity.
FoodShare promotes accessible, affordable fresh produce, according to Gabriel Wilhelm, the community outreach coordinator and fresh food evangelist at FoodShare.
FoodShare is a non-profit organization located just outside Columbia Mall near Spotlight Cinemas. Its partner sites are hosted by schools, civic groups, churches and more.
"One of our partner sites is the Comet Central transit station downtown. So if someone is riding the bus, they can purchase a box from there and pick it up from Comet Central," said Wilhelm.
"Where we see a lack of grocery stores, we see a ton of Dollar Trees and Dollar Generals and Family Dollars," Wilhelm said. "What am I going to get there? It's going to be Lean Cuisine and microwavable meals and processed foods and potato chips and cola — all that kind of stuff...they don't offer produce at these places."
Gabriella Carroway, a mother of three and a FoodShare customer, peaks inside the boxes to see what is stored inside.
"It's really good quality food for extremely cheap. I have three children, so it's easy to be able to come and get this instead of going to a grocery store and getting poor quality food," said Carroway. "With the variety and everything, it's really made us start eating better and different stuff that we didn't eat before."
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilhelm said it's even more important to stay healthy and consider how much fiber, vegetables, and fruit you're eating.
"We want people to be able to eat healthy. Let that be their medicine so that they don't have to end up in doctor's offices and hospitals," Wilhelm said. "In the case of being a healthier person, you obviously have a much better chance of fighting off COVID."
The organization also offers a program called NeighborShare, in which a team of volunteers will deliver a box to people who cannot come and get their boxes — either due to a physical element or lack of transportation.
Wilhelm said they've seen an uptick in the number of people buying food boxes. FoodShare has officially opened up a new partner site in Lancaster and more partner sites will open in Laurens, Williamsburg, Fairfield, York, and Marlboro this year.