South Carolina's Food Deserts

South Carolina's Food Deserts

Jun 1, 2022

It's been a busy day. Summer break has hardly been a break, and after a long day of work, you come home to a house full of hungry mouths. Tonight, you're keeping it simple: chicken and rice. You head to the pantry to gather the ingredients, but the rice isn't where it's supposed to be. Has someone moved it? You search the kitchen from top to bottom, but it is nowhere to be found. Without ingredients for dinner tonight, will you and your family go hungry?

In a stressful situation like this, many of us would simply make a trip to the nearest grocery store to get the ingredients we need. But for many of the South Carolinians living in food deserts, there is no simple solution. Even when families have the extra room in their budget for last-minute groceries, those in food deserts don't have access to a grocery store right down the street.

On my commute to work, I pass three grocery stores on my 8-mile drive. This is not the reality in most of South Carolina where rural families must travel 10 miles, or sometimes more, to the nearest store. These experiences are at the core of what it looks like to live in a food desert. 

What is a food desert? The USDA defines a food desert, “as a low-income tract where a substantial number or substantial share of residents does not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” This includes communities where at least one-third of the community is one mile away from a grocery store in urban areas, or ten miles away from a grocery store in rural areas (USDA). That puts approximately 13.5 million Americans in food deserts, including more than a million South Carolinians. 

Certainly, people are not choosing to live in places where there is no access to food, so where do food deserts come from? 

Food deserts are created when economic inequality leads a neighborhood or community to become less profitable for businesses. A lower likelihood of profits often causes businesses and corporations to leave communities. The people that live in these communities are then left without access to groceries. 

This is a phenomenon that still happens today but was especially popular in the 1980s when upper and middle-class families fled to the suburbs (CNBC). This historic trend can explain some of the food deserts found in mostly minority urban communities in South Carolina, like right outside the Columbia, Greenville, and Charleston areas. A lot of South Carolina’s food deserts are in rural areas, where lower population density and fewer job opportunities make the communities less profitable for business.

The problem's persistence today is linked to the increased cost of opening up a business, like a grocery store, in an area without many existing investments. This causes these low-income food deserts, with a great need and demand for grocery stores to be looked at as poor investments. According to CNBC, this economic barrier persists as economic programs are typically built for places with the greatest potential for growth rather than the greatest need. 

These economic barriers in food deserts not only affect the viability of grocery stores. They also cause limitations for the residents. While 1-10 miles may not seem like much, many low-income individuals in urban or rural food deserts don’t have consistent access to a car. This makes it difficult, and in areas without public transportation, nearly impossible to get to grocery stores located far away from home. Especially for people working or raising children that do not have a lot of extra time in their day, or those who are elderly or disabled and have low mobility. Even those who do have a car sometimes face difficulties paying for expensive gas to drive far away for food. 

People who often have a hard time getting to a grocery store, also have difficulty getting to a food pantry or food bank. So, what are we doing to make a difference?

Harvest Hope facilitates a Mobile Food Pantry Program to meet the needs of South Carolinians living in food deserts. Our mobile food boxes contain a menu of healthy, and diverse non-perishable foods to help families build their meals. These boxes are taken out into food deserts and distributed at a community center such as a church or a fire station. While this is not a perfect solution to food insecurity in food deserts, it does provide a way for people to access the food they need. 

To learn more about the food deserts near you, check out the USDA Food Desert Map. We can raise awareness about the reality of food deserts in South Carolina, and work together to support these communities until more permanent solutions can be found.