FLORENCE, SC (WBTW) — Florence’s new downtown grocery store has been a decade in the making.

“I don’t think people realize how long it takes to have things put in place and actually move it forward,” said Clint Moore, the city’s assistant manager. “You can sometimes take years of groundwork to get these things — physical projects — off the ground and actually make a difference.”

Portions of Florence are considered to be food deserts, areas where residents have a hard time accessing healthy options. 

The city identified the deserts as a problem to be fixed in its 2010 comprehensive plan. Officials have taken action in the last several years to combat the issue.

“When you’re looking at creating a better place for people to live, work and play, looking at economic development, looking at just the health of a city, holistically, that is a piece of the puzzle, and it is not surprising that the areas in which we identified within our neighborhood revitalization strategy, all of the neighborhood work we’re doing, is also the location of our food desert, so we knew that this had to be a multi-faceted approach,” Moore said. 

The deserts

Most of northern Georgetown County, along with parts of North Myrtle Beach, Florence, Conway and Surfside Beach are food deserts, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s SC Food Desert Map. Other deserts include the Socastee area of Myrtle Beach, the area surrounding the Myrtle Beach International Airport and the area north of U.S. Route 501 and east of U.S Route 17. 

Dillon, Bennettsville, Hartsville and parts of Darlington are also food deserts. 

The online map was created using data from the 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Services Access Research Atlas, according to Berry Kelly, the director of Bureau and Community Nutrition Services for DHEC. The map defines food deserts as areas where people who live in urban areas live more than a half mile from a healthy food source, or where people in rural areas live more than 10 miles from one. Food sources include farmers markets, grocery stores, roadside markets, restaurants and food pantries.

Kelly said the map helps DHEC when it works with other agencies, like WIC. 

“We want to use the food map to really identify those food deserts so we can really maximize our resources in the state and make sure our citizens have access to healthy foods,” Kelly said. 

The agency also uses the map to identify areas where it can encourage businesses to place services.

Kelly said poor diets can impact health. People who live in food deserts, he said, are also at a higher risk of diet-related conditions like diabetes.

State help

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the need to help alleviate food deserts as people have lost jobs and therefore income, children have been unable to travel to schools to get meals and families have to decide whether to use their limited money to pay for transportation to a grocery store.

“These are not new challenges,” said Anna Lewin, the chief executive officer for the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, which provides loans to help eliminate food deserts. “They have been exacerbated by a global pandemic.”

Lewin said food deserts disproportionately impact communities of color, along with low-income and rural areas. 

The fund, which convened the South Carolina Food Access Task Force, has been designated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a community development financial institution. It provides loans for projects such as affordable housing, small businesses and healthy food outlets. The task force has been instrumental in raising awareness around the issue of food access and identifying barriers to it.

To date, the fund has loaned more than $3 million spread throughout seven initiatives and has financed projects such as a food bank, a grocery store and a small food market.

“Those projects are by and large community-based, so the goal of the program is to increase access to healthy food while supporting the development of strong, local entrepreneurs and community-based businesses,” Lewin said. 

The newest funding cycle, which is accepting applications through Feb. 5, has its eye on lending money in the Myrtle Beach area.

In addition to the loans, the South Carolina Community Loan Fund also gives away a seed capital award. More than $170,000 in funds have been awarded to projects like a grocery store in Florence. 

The fund is also invested in teaching entrepreneurs how to do a balance sheet or talk to a lender. It covers the cost of a virtual, 10-week program done through Clemson University Extension that teaches similar topics and helps burgeoning entrepreneurs connect with each other.

“So many times we have borrowers who absolutely know and understand how to address the needs in their communities,” Lewin said. “They understand the needs, they understand a solution that works for their community and they have a really great idea to do that, and so, what is often missing is the kind of capacity to carry these projects out and bring them to fruition.”

Filling food deserts, she said, improves the health and wealth of local communities. She points to Lakeview, where residents had to drive to North Carolina for groceries before a small market opened. That grocery store not only increased access to food, but kept money circulating in that community.

“These projects work,” Lewin said. “They can be impactful. They make a difference in their communities.”

The Florence solution

A new grocery store in downtown Florence received $500,000 from the fund and $300,000 from the city to help improve the area’s food desert status. 

The Save-A-Lot is expected to open this spring in the city’s new Food, Artisan and Warehouse District and have at least 20 employees. The district was created a handful of years ago to provide access to food and provide more economic opportunity for the area.

Moore said the project is one part of the city’s neighborhood revitalization strategy, which includes other elements such as installing sidewalks to create pedestrian access to healthy and local food options.

“The livability of an area is very important,” Moore said. “It is extremely important to the residents who live here and who live and spend all their time in the city, and this is their home.”

Moore said a wakeup call came when Florence was a finalist city for a Starbucks K-Cup Pod manufacturing facility — until the company came to the city to see where its employees would live.

“They are looking at all that, and the feedback we got was at the time we had a declining downtown, and the surrounding neighborhoods were in decline, as well,” Moore said. “So council and staff at that time knew that we had to take measures to improve that and do the things that we should be doing, and that was to revitalize the downtown and revitalize the neighborhoods.”

The farmers market opened at the new facility in March, then shut down the following week due to the pandemic. Moore said it’ll reopen once things start returning to the pre-COVID-19 normal. 

He said it would have been surprising two decades ago to hear that a city government was getting involved in increasing access to food. Now, it’s a problem Florence wants to solve.

“This is a very, very important issue,” Moore said. “It is one that is not going to go away. There is no silver bullet approach. We can’t just build a farmers market and solve the problem.”