Clemson researchers create connections across counties, organizations to aid food insecure families, reduce obesity in the Pee Dee

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Clemson researchers create connections across counties, organizations to aid food insecure families, reduce obesity in the Pee Dee

Pictured In late June, FoodShare SC delivered over 800 food boxes to Mt. Calvary for distribution to citizens of Lee County. Image Credit: Clemson University Extension.

By Michael Staton, College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences

Clemson researchers have used grant funds from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to combat obesity in South Carolina since 2018, and work continues to yield positive results despite obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, researchers and health extension agents behind the CDC High-Obesity Program have linked the outreach work of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Bishopville, which connects 25 local churches to aid over 500 families in and around Lee County, with Foodshare SC, a nonprofit organization based in Richland County that provides affordable, fresh food boxes across the state.

Sarah Griffin, professor in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences’ public health sciences department, said this work is just as much about fostering relationships between organizations that can help in this mission as it is about giving sound advice about healthy food choices. Griffin and other researchers involved in the CDC program are understandably encouraged with the progress made by the cooperation between Mt. Calvary and FoodShare SC in Lee County, which is just one of the areas targeted by the research.

“I grew up 10 miles away from Bishopville, so I’m familiar with the issues facing Lee County and our state,” Griffin said. “What we’re seeing is the power of cooperation to address these issues; sales of healthy, fresh food boxes have skyrocketed since February, which equates to thousands of pounds of fresh produce hitting dinner tables across Lee County.”

The project is the first faith-based, non-profit food buying cooperative in South Carolina that is approved to accept the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and South Carolina’s Healthy Bucks benefits. Griffin said rural health team agents led by Michelle Parisi, director of the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service Rural Health and Nutrition Program Team, have been instrumental in helping participating groups secure permission to accept SNAP benefits and Healthy Bucks as payment. Without these forms of payment, it would be less likely that lower income households would participate in the program.

The Mt. Calvary-Foodshare SC partnership allows Lee County residents to purchase low-cost, top-quality produce. A typical purchase consists of a family-sized box filled with 12-15 varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables, with the contents changing each month. Participants can purchase boxes monthly by using either cash or SNAP/EBT. If purchased with cash, these boxes cost $15. If purchased with SNAP/EBT, $5 is charged to SNAP benefits and $10 is charged to SC Healthy Bucks.

Wanda Green is one of the rural health team agents charged with addressing the lack of healthy food access and physical activity in Lee County. Green said the interventions made possible by the Mt. Calvary-Foodshare SC partnership come at a crucial time for Lee County, whose residents face many barriers to healthy living.

Lee County has an adult obesity rate of 40 percent, and 21 percent of the county residents qualify as food insecure. Exacerbating both these issues is the fact that 30 percent of Lee County residents have income levels below the federal poverty threshold, and this rate is only increasing as unemployment takes its toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This partnership has proven to be a viable, low-cost option for fresh fruits and vegetables that any resident of Lee County can take advantage of,” Green said. “The partnership places special emphasis on addressing the issues faced by low-income families when acquiring fresh, affordable food, and we believe it can serve as a model for other counties and areas around the state.”

Carolyn Harvey and LaNetta Toney are two of many congregation members at Mt. Calvary that put in more volunteer hours than some people put into full-time jobs. They are acutely aware of the health and food insecurity issues facing Lee County residents, which is why they are especially motivated to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables through FoodShare SC.

Mt. Calvary also includes workshops and demonstrations on healthy food preparation into their efforts, and the FoodShare SC boxes contain information on preparation and storage of the produce. Toney said many of the residents tell her they were never taught how to prepare food properly or in a healthy way. She said these recipe cards help to create delicious meals in the short term while positively influencing the way people prepare food for years to come.

“The amount of people has increased, and it’s all different types coming in to get this food,” Harvey added. “Other churches are purchasing this food for seniors and we’re helping the seniors in our congregation [with the food], but we’re also seeing more families and even individuals taking advantage of what we’re offering through FoodShare SC.”

Gabriel Wilhelm, community outreach coordinator for FoodShare SC, has the numbers to prove just how much the interest and need for these food boxes has increased. When the partnership started in February, Mt. Calvary packed 57 boxes. In late June, Wilhelm oversaw the packing and distribution of over 800. That’s an increase from less than 1,000 pounds of food to over 13,500 pounds in the span of only five months.

Wilhelm said part of this increase is due to the food boxes having changed and improved based on residents’ feedback, but mostly it is because the need is only greater since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seniors who are more homebound because of the virus and those individuals who are furloughed or laid off from work are looking to stretch their food budgets, especially on healthy food.

Wilhelm said Clemson researchers and rural health agents such as Green are forging connections that might otherwise not have been made between fresh food and those in need.

“The work that we do in FoodshareSC keeps us so busy that we often don’t know what the need actually is in other counties,” Wilhelm said. “To have Clemson folks as boots on the ground to make these connections and get like-minded people together is extremely important, especially in times of crisis. It’s been great to see over the last several months that the desire is there to improve health by improving residents’ diets.”

Media are invited to attend the next Food Share SC delivery and boxing at Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church will be held on Friday, July 24 from 9:30 a.m. to noon, when food is boxed and distribution begins. Representatives from Clemson University, Mt. Calvary and Food Share SC will be on hand to discuss the outreach work made possible by these organizations.

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