By Aïda Rogers
Austin Coale isn’t an outside-the-box kind of guy. He’s all about what’s inside the box, namely the fresh fruits and vegetables he gets to those who need them. After volunteering with Harvest Hope Food Bank his freshman year and working last summer with the FoodShare program on Harden Street in Columbia, the Honors psychology sophomore began delivering boxes of produce to USC students last semester.
“College students face food insecurity; it’s one of the most under-represented communities,” Coale says. “Kids take so many classes and work jobs to put themselves through school, and they feel they can’t eat healthy on their budget.”
Not so, he continues, especially with the boxes he delivers every Wednesday to the Gamecock Pantry, which stocks only dry foods. “You can come regardless of your income as long as you’re a student.”
Coale’s volunteerism earned him a 2017 Excellence in Service-Learning Student Award, recognition of his efforts to erase food deserts on campus and in Columbia. As an AmeriCorps Vista Summer Associate, he witnessed how poverty can exist next door to wealth, and that the working poor labor mightily to get through the day, let alone buy healthy groceries. Many of them can’t.
“There are people on Harden Street struggling to get food for their kids. They’re weighing whether to buy food or pay hospital bills,” he says. “It’s amazing how close to home it actually is.”
Besides packing and giving out boxes—each with apples, oranges, bananas, a root vegetable and greens—Coale researched food insecurity in the 29203 zip code. He learned the larger $20 box could feed a family of four for two weeks. By comparison, that same box from a nearby grocery store would cost $50. Clients using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) could buy a large box for $10. FoodShare, a nonprofit, can offer cheaper produce because they buy in bulk from farmers markets across the country.
Frequently Coale helped clients in other ways, referring them to smoking cessation programs and pre-diabetes screenings. Along with longtime area residents, he assisted refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But it was food that created the camaraderie between him and clients. They bonded over unfamiliar fruits and vegetables they found in their boxes.
“We put beets in there; some didn’t know how to cook them,” he recalls. “We had mangoes, eggplant, rutabaga—some things they didn’t know.”
Thanks to a recipe card in each box, clients—and Coale—learned. “I bought the box a couple of times and did a cool beet and sweet potato dish. Also eggplant fries. You bake it with bread crumbs and olive oil, slice it in strips. I don’t like eggplant, and I ate it that way. People would say, ‘I used that mango. I was nervous about cooking it, but I loved it.’”
A Charlotte native and McNair Scholar, Coale was an athlete in high school and volunteer since his elementary school days walking dogs for the Humane Society. Nutrition and food insecurity have long been personal interests, leading him to take a service learning course on those subjects the fall semester of his freshman year. His career plans aren’t concrete, though he mentions the Peace Corps and starting a small business pertaining to psychology and health.
Before graduation in 2020, though, he’s hoping to continue his work with AmeriCorps. Working at FoodShare has strengthened his desire to make sure children get fresh fruits and vegetables so they’ll have fewer health problems when they’re older.
Meantime, he’s at the Gamecock Pantry Monday and Wednesday from noon until 1 p.m., with FoodShare boxes available each Wednesday. He’d like to include a message with every box:
“It was eye-opening to see our clients working greater hours than a lot of other people and still struggling to buy food,” he says. “I learned so much about the preconceived notions I had, and how the world really functions and how people can work their whole lives and still be poor. And, how lucky I am to go to a college and get a job that prevents me from food insecurity.”
FoodShare boxes can be ordered at the Gamecock Pantry Monday and Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m. Or contact Austin Coale at firstname.lastname@example.org.