A healthy diet is key to ensuring good overall health. Eating well-rounded meals that include fresh produce can help reduce the risks of developing chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
But many people throughout South Carolina do not have access to healthy foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. FoodShare South Carolina was established to help bridge the gap and create greater access to healthy foods.
“We advocate for food access and food justice by supporting various initiatives within our state,” says FoodShare Executive Director Beverly Wilson. “From program design to community outreach, we take our cues from those most affected by poverty and food insecurity.”
The program receives funding from the BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation, which has allowed FoodShare to expand to 14 counties throughout the state. The program includes 71 hubs and partner sites that provide low-cost food boxes, and 52 of those sites are in areas designated as high-need areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The food boxes include about a dozen varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables and recipes to help recipients prepare their food.
"Affordable fruits and vegetables are a necessity in preventing chronic health conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, along with noncommunicable diseases," says Felicia Smith, a health and wellness coach and health promotion coordinator at BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina." Some urban neighborhoods may have grocery stores, but the availability of fruits and vegetables are scarce. You will see plenty of fast-food restaurants and corners stores that have candy, soda and chips but not fruits and vegetables. The same situation applies to rural areas but with a different setting. Rural communities may have a grocery store 10 miles away and people might not have reliable transportation."
Access to healthy foods is not the only barrier to eating healthy. Some South Carolinians cannot afford the fresh produce options that are available. Wilson says the mission of FoodShare is to provide affordable access. Part of the funding the Foundation provides through the Diabetes Free SC initiative allows FoodShare to prioritize recipients who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. SNAP recipients can receive financial assistance to pay for their FoodShare boxes through Healthy Bucks. This program, managed by the South Carolina Department of Social Services, helps make produce more affordable for SNAP recipients through additional purchasing power when using SNAP EBT cards at participating locations, like FoodShare.
Programs like FoodShare help eliminate inequities some South Carolinians face when it comes to access to healthy foods, Smith says. This can have a significant impact on other areas of their lives. "If someone has access to affordable food, they are more likely to purchase fruits and vegetables and their additional funds can go toward other necessities like paying for medication, rent and utilities."
Funding and support from the Foundation is vital to expanding FoodShare’s services throughout the state. That expansion involves more than increasing the number of food boxes delivered. FoodShare is working to add nutrition and diabetes education elements to their food box distribution services. The funding will also allow the launch of a program called Veggie Rx.
“Veggie Rx enables health care providers to enroll patients with prediabetes or diabetes into a fresh food box program. Patients receive free produce boxes for the first six months,” Wilson says. “Hospitals and health care clinics are ideal entry points for patients to access these resources. COVID-19 has shown that food truly is medicine and that equitable access to health and protective diets is a matter of life and death to many.”
Blood sugar levels, weight, blood pressure and other self-reported health information are tracked by health care providers.
“It’s important for our health care system to recognize that food access programs such as FoodShare and the Veggie Rx model are effective and critical forms of care. Evidence suggests produce prescription programs can improve health outcomes for lower-income individuals or those who live with diet-related diseases by promoting access to healthy foods and reducing the financial burden of maintaining a healthy diet,” Wilson says.
To date, FoodShare has delivered more than 133,000 boxes of food, which is equal to more than 2 million pounds of produce. But the sky is the limit.
Wilson says, “We’re building a sustainable network of food access member hubs throughout South Carolina that will allow all residents to feed themselves and their families in a dignified manner.”