Foodshare looking to create food hub in Fairfield

Volunteers who helped fill food boxes for 800 Fairfield County residents last week included, from left: Gabriel Wilhelm with Foodshare; Russell Price, Director of the County’s Parks and Recreation Department; County Deputy Administrator Laura Johnson and County Councilman for District 2 Jimmy Ray Douglas. | Photos: Barbara Ball

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County and Fairfield Forward distributed 800 free boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to county residents last week – the seventh of the county’s food giveaways prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the giveaways aren’t expected to last forever, they may have spawned another food program – one that could be available to all Fairfield residents for years to come at below market cost.

“It’s not realistic to think that the county and Fairfield Forward can continue to find grants to fund these food box distributions at no cost to residents,” Gabriel Wilhelm, the Community Outreach Coordinator for Foodshare South Carolina told The Voice last week. He was at the county’s Hon building on Wednesday, at the request of county administration, helping Fairfield volunteers sort and re-box fruits and vegetables for free distribution later that day to 800 residents at four pre-designated drive-thru locations around the county.

During the Time of Corona, grants have been available through the United States Department of Agriculture, Harvest Hope and others for the county and Fairfield Forward to use to sponsor the distributions that can cost upwards of $10,000 for 800 boxes.

As the USDA program and other funding sources end, Wilhelm said Foodshare would like to step in and provide Fairfield with a replacement food distribution program that has been successfully implemented in hubs in Greenville, Orangeburg, Bamburg, Spartanburg, Lee County, Camden and other towns and county’s around the state. The program is expected to launch hubs in Lancaster and Hampton Counties this year and another 34 hubs across the state in the next five years.

“The end goal of Foodshare is sustainability of food distribution over the long term,” Wilhelm said. “We would like to bring a hub to Fairfield.

“Much like the distribution we’re doing here today, Foodshare would send a truck load of fresh fruits and vegetables into a Fairfield hub where a group of volunteers would sort the produce, pack the boxes and distribute them,” he said. “The difference between what we’re doing here today – distributing free boxes – and what is done in a Foodshare hub, is that all the boxes distributed through a hub are purchased by the people who come to pick them up.”

At a Foodshare hub, cost of a box is about half the cost of retail. A box of produce worth about $30 could be purchased for $15. SNAP participants would only pay $5, Wilhelm said.

“Under our program, it doesn’t matter how many people buy or don’t buy the box each week, the box pays for itself because someone’s bought it,” Wilhelm said. “Whoever wants the box, buys it. There’s no place you can pay $5 and get that amount of really good fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Our goal is to make it affordable for people who want to eat healthy. This would greatly benefit people who have diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases. The Foodshare program eliminates the barrier of affordability for everyone,” Wilhelm said.

“That’s the sustainability part of the program that Fairfield doesn’t have going right now,” he said.

For Foodshare to bring a hub to Fairfield, Wilhelm said they would need a building to bring the produce to for distribution and a volunteer nonprofit group, such as a civic club, to oversee and manage it. That would include placing orders and arranging for pickup and delivery in some cases.

“Some Foodshare hubs offer Laborshare- volunteer drivers to deliver boxes that have been purchased by folks who don’t have transportation,” he said. This isn’t possible with the free food-giveaways where the produce may not always get to the people who need it most.

“Once we find a building and the volunteers who want to run it, Foodshare can help them duplicate our model,” he said. “We will bring in all our tools and expertise, all of our relationships with the people who actually have the cardboard boxes, all the way up to Senn Brothers who brings the truck to drop off pallets  of potatoes, bananas, apples, greens, corn-on-the-cob, etc. – all the stuff that goes into the box. And every box contains exactly the same things,” Wilhelm said. “And all of it is top quality produce.”

“Foodshare is for everyone, and we don’t turn anyone away,” Wilhelm said. “While most of our customers are folks who use SNAP benefits, anyone who can buy a box is welcome to buy one.”

Any group interested in overseeing a Foodshare hub in Fairfield County can contact Wilhelm at 803-309-4228.