As she stood in line on Sept. 4, waiting to pick up a box of fresh produce and other foods from the FoodShare South Carolina facility on Harden Street, Frankie Pogue could only shake her head as she looked at the now-empty-and-closed Save-A-Lot grocery store, which is connected to FoodShare’s space.
“I’m actually shocked,” Pogue, who lives in North Columbia’s Eau Claire community, said about the closed Save-A-Lot. “We don’t have that many grocery stores around here in the community, near the Drew Wellness Center or Celia Saxon [neighborhood]. I came here from Eau Claire, because there’s no grocery store over there, either.”
Pogue was one of numerous local residents who turned up on Sept. 4 for a pop-up produce market at the former Save-A-Lot. FoodShare South Carolina; the City of Columbia’s food policy council; Eat Smart, Move More and other organizations came together to offer the pop-up shop. Residents could get a box of vegetables, fruits and various other foods for only $5.
The Columbia Housing Authority, whose development arm owns the shopping center where Save-A-Lot was located and had stepped in to operate the store when the previous operator left in late 2018, voted in August to close the Harden Street grocery.
The exit of Save-A-Lot from Harden Street, for now, exacerbates food insecurities in an area of the city that has poor access to traditional grocery stores and fresh produce.
As noted in a Feburary Free Times cover story, a dearth of nearby fresh grocery options has become a reality in the north and northwest sections of Columbia, particularly affecting the lower income black neighborhoods there. Aside from the 2016 closure of the West Beltline Boulevard Piggly Wiggly, 2018 saw the closure of the Harvey’s supermarket in the 3900 block of North Main, followed by the recent shutdown of the Save-A-Lot on Harden.
The nonprofit FoodShare SC started working in north and northwest Columbia in 2015, and it helps connect low income families with access to fresh, affordable food.
Gordon Schell, FoodShare’s director of operations, was among those working at the Sept. 4 pop-up market, helping customers select various produce, grains and more.
He said, after the closure of Save-A-Lot, it was important to let residents in nearby neighborhoods know that their need for fresh foods has not gone unnoticed.
“This is directly in response to the closing [of Save-A-Lot],” Schell tells Free Times. “We wanted to pull together a program to let people know immediately that there will be resources for them. We have things in place. We didn’t want people to see this store close and then be like, ‘Nobody cares about us.’ It’s like, ‘Hey, we are doing this.’”
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin also turned up at the Sept. 4 pop-up market. He tells Free Times there are talks underway about possibly re-establishing a grocery in the now-empty Save-A-Lot store.
“We have had an opportunity to meet with some interested parties, and Housing Authority leadership, to figure out the very best way to make sure that another grocery store that serves fresh, high quality foods will not only exist in this [former Save-A-Lot] space, but will be sustainable,” Benjamin says. “It’s a must-do.”
The third-term mayor admits he’s concerned about the food desert that has come to exist in north and northwest Columbia, where grocery stores are few and far between and lower income citizens may have transportation issues in getting to grocers that are further away. He says the city will look to find ways to help address food insecurities.
“We’ve tried to be creative in helping fill that gap, but it’s a tough business,” Benjamin says. “It’s a tough business and one where you’d love to see the free market and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations take hold and watch capitalism make everything work. But it doesn’t always work like that. Occasionally when you have a crucial priority that is not being met by the free market you have to find ways to subsidize it.”