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As demand for free meals grows, new map makes finding Charleston food pantries easier

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Food distribution walk up.jpg (copy)

Volunteer Kyle Maddox helps distribute food from the Lowcountry Food Bank at Revive Church on Remount Road in North Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

There are nearly 100 places across Charleston County where people in need can get free food or a hot meal.

But knowing where to go to find these resources can be tricky, especially for those who have never had to ask for help before.

That’s why the Lowcountry Food Bank, in partnership with the College of Charleston’s Riley Center for Livable Communities and the City of Charleston, created a new online map to make the process easier.

The Charleston Free Food Finder Map uses Geographic Information System mapping software to display a list of 90 or so food resources spread throughout the county.

Users can input their home address or use a feature that selects their current location to see a list of the food sites closest to where they are, as well as the days and times each site is open and the type of resource it offers.

The free map can be found at https://bit.ly/chs-food-resources.

The resources include three types of sites: Lowcountry Food Bank Partner organizations, Charleston County School District meal pickup locations, and other non-affiliated free food sites.

The need for a centralized free food locator map is greater than ever due to the increase in people seeking food assistance for the first time, said Bob Kahle, associate director of the College of Charleston’s Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the state, causing schools and businesses to close in its wake, unemployment rates skyrocketed, leaving some families with new and unexpected financial strains. Over the past few months, between 35 percent to 45 percent of those seeking food assistance from the Lowcountry Food Bank’s 10-county service area have never sought the assistance before, said Pat Walker, CEO of the Lowcountry Food Bank.

“This particular time is so very important to so many people in our community, who find themselves in situations where they really just don't know where to get their next meal from,” Walker said.

Collectively, the food bank's 300 or so partner agencies across the ten counties have seen a 58 percent increase in the number of people seeking food assistance since the pandemic started.

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Making things harder: Complications related to the pandemic, such as a lack of volunteers, meant that nearly 15 percent of Charleston-area Lowcountry Food Bank partner agencies have been forced to close since mid-March.

Research shows that vulnerable populations may only have internet access via their phone, said Gloria Roderick, GIS analyst at the Riley Center who helped build the map. The website was designed with this in mind, Roderick said, and mobile-friendly use was prioritized over traditional desktop access.

The free food finder map was created via grant support from the Lowcountry Food Bank, the Riley Center and the City of Charleston. Kahle estimated it cost about $15,000 to develop the Charleston County map.

The center is in the process of securing more funding to expand the map across the 10 coastal counties the Lowcountry Food Bank serves.

While the Charleston Free Food Finder Map was largely conceptualized and created over the past four weeks, the development of GIS data mapping tools to guide decision making at the Lowcountry Food Bank has been in the works for almost a year.

The mapping software can show the Lowcountry Food Bank how much food was distributed by each of its partner sites with retrospect to the population by Census tract data. Another map shows those areas within a 15-, 10- or 5-minute drive of all the distribution locations within the Lowcountry Food Bank’s service area.

This kind of precise, location-based data has allowed LCFB to better assign equitable food distribution, Walker said.

“We don't want to distribute all the resources we have in one particular area or multiple areas when the need in an area 15 miles away, for example, might be much more,” she said.

This type of shift toward data-based decision making was part of the food bank’s strategic plan. It can guide short-term actions, such as where to implement pop-up mobile pantries, as well as more long-term solutions, like adding a new partner organization.

From mid-March through the end of May the Lowcountry Food Bank distributed nearly 2.3 million meals to citizens across Horry, Williamsburg, Georgetown, Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester, Colleton, Hampton, Jasper and Beaufort counties.

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

Jenna Schiferl was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She has worked as an education reporter for The Post and Courier since 2019.

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