Nathan and Meredith Good are well educated and hard working. They own a house in Shandon and have two children, ages six and four. Meredith acquired a nursing degree while Nathan, with a sociology degree, worked for a while as a case manager in a home for abused children and also began managing rental properties. When the opportunity for Nathan to test his entrepreneurial spirit presented itself, the couple opened a coffee shop together downtown that was, for a while, successful. However, when the economy took a nosedive a few years ago, so did their coffee shop. The Goods suddenly found themselves transitioning from a comfortable lifestyle into survival mode.
Debts from the struggling business began to mount. The little money they did have coming in from odd jobs and rental properties covered basic necessities, but Meredith was finding it difficult to eke enough out of their shrinking dollars to purchase adequate groceries to feed the family. For the first time in their lives, this family of servers and givers had to become takers in order to survive. Periodically, Nathan would visit a food bank to supplement weekly groceries.
“We walked through some hard times for about a year and a half,” says Meredith. “It was a complete attack on our pride. We were not used to asking for help; we were used to helping others. Many of our friends did not know, for a while, that we were having difficulties. It’s just not something you want to talk about. I remember participating in a dinner gathering with friends where you bring a dish. I had gotten some decent looking asparagus at a local food bank. When my friend asked where I got the asparagus, I hesitated and said, ‘It was given to me.’ I didn’t want to tell her it was from the food bank. Later on, when she was having a crisis, I realized that we really don’t know what’s going on with people. Everyone has some kind of issue to deal with.”
Increasingly throughout America, families have become food insecure. According to Feeding America’s Hunger Report 2010, the organization is providing food to 37 million Americans – an increase of 46 percent just since 2008. The report states: “More than one-third of client households report having to choose between food and other basic necessities, such as rent, utilities and medical care.” College students, as well, are finding that a scholarship or college fund may have gotten them to a college, but they are unable to feed themselves once they get there.
The first step that the Goods made to minimize their grocery bill was to learn how to coupon. A friend paid for Meredith to attend a Southern Savers seminar, which teaches families how to save money on groceries and personal care products. This helped, but it did not solve their problems. Visiting a food bank also helped. However, the Goods soon learned that at most food banks, because the organization is meeting such a great demand, clients must take what they get and do the best they can with meal preparation.
“We were used to eating so healthy,” says Meredith. “I’m not discounting, at all, what the food banks do. They provide an invaluable service, and we are very appreciative of that. For our family, we just wanted some healthy choices. We didn’t want there to be any waste, and I just didn’t feel good about feeding my family high salt, high sugar or highly processed foods. We were already distraught about our situation, so eating unhealthily only made us feel worse.”
Walking around her neighborhood one day, a light bulb went off in Meredith’s mind. What if there was a food bank that offered mostly healthy foods and gave clients a chance to choose their food supply? she thought. What if this same food bank provided coupons and education regarding grocery shopping frugality?
“I birthed this idea with my husband, and then we talked it over with some people at our church, Radius in Lexington,” says Meredith. “People began donating money, food and products. I learned when I began couponing that people often stock up on supplies when they can be purchased for practically nothing on sale and with a coupon. For example, if a family has eight tubes of toothpaste and they figure they might only need four for the year, they have another four to donate.”
Meredith and Nathan Good envision the Food Boutique as a comforting place where clients are nurtured not just with food, but spiritually as well.
Thanks to donations, The Food Boutique is housed in a 500-square-foot storage unit on Garners Ferry in The Shoppes at Woodhill, near Target and next to Hampton Hill Athletic Club and Tonic Day Spa. Local graphic designer Lauren Landers came up with a retro, upbeat logo and the motto: “Shop where everything is FREE, and learn how to get through this tough time.” The shelves are stocked with such items as Healthy Choice soups and whole grain pastas. There are cans of vegetables and boxes of whole grain cereals. For families with small children, there are diapers, wipes and baby foods. Clients can also choose cleaning products (a luxury, says Meredith, when times are tight) as well as toilet paper, paper towels, first aid items and toiletries. Healthy, easy recipes hang on a clipboard and donated coupons are always available.
“Everything is donated,” says Meredith. “People might see a case of something that’s affordable and buy it for us, or they might get too much of something because they have a coupon for it and donate it to the Food Boutique. What we really need is rice, beans, canned vegetables, flour, sugar, salt, healthy pastas, soups, baby items, etc.”
Most donations are by individuals; however, a Massachusetts-based company, Food Should Taste Good, Inc., donated a large amount of food, while Meredith says she is seeking to partner with local businesses and donors. Beginning last September, Tot Trade became a partner.
To become a Food Boutique client, Meredith says the only qualification is perceived need. A volunteer will conduct a short interview and fill out some general paperwork. One of the questions on the questionnaire is this: “Do you have other needs or prayer requests?”
Meredith points out that she would like for the Food Boutique to be a comforting place where clients will know they are being nurtured not just with food, but spiritually as well.
During the client’s first visit, she says, “We just want them to be blessed.” The second and future visits require sweat equity. Sweat equity involves bringing in items or coupons they may not use, helping check expiration dates on products, stocking and organizing shelves, or volunteering to help other clients shop. Meredith says, “We just don’t want to encourage an entitlement mentality. They need to be involved. They’re being helped and they can spend a short amount of time helping others.”
After eight weeks of using The Food Boutique, clients receive training in how to shop via “Extreme Couponing Method.”
Because so many clients who are visiting the Food Boutique are not used to taking free food, they are hesitant, observes Meredith. As a result, she came up with a form – with assistance from a nutritionist friend – that offers suggestions for the amount a family should take based on their size. For example, a family of four shopping for a week or so might need 12 items in the bread, grains, cereals, pasta category and 18 cans of soup.
“With my nursing training, I am aware that we need to cater to clients who might have specific health issues, such as hypertension,” she says.
The goal for Food Boutique is to eventually have locations in all the surrounding areas of Columbia: Lexington, Irmo and the Northeast. “We envision a small, friendly grocery store setting so that clients can feel more ‘normal’ while they’re shopping,” explains Meredith. She is also working on achieving 501(c)(3) status for the Food Boutique.
There is no time limit to how long clients can use the Food Boutique. “Our goal is to empower families to be independent again and not reliant on a food pantry.”
Meredith says that although her family is still digging out of their economic woes, the future looks brighter daily. “We can now afford to shop at a grocery store for healthy foods again, but I am more cautious and careful and use coupons when I shop. We’re on a tight budget, but it certainly feels wonderful when you can come through it. We’ve been so blessed and God has been so good to us. We just want to give others hope, and we’re hoping that the Food Boutique does that. It’s about just putting one foot in front of the other.”
How to Help
Anyone who wants to volunteer time to help people shop at the Food Boutique, or to donate items, produce (especially during the summer months), or make financial donations, visit www.healthyfoodboutique.com or contact Meredith at email@example.com. Drop-off locations for donations include Hampton Hill Athletic Club/Tonic Day Spa in the Shoppes at Woodhill, Daff-a-Deals Children’s Store, Frame of Mind, The Funzone and FFS Model and Talent Agency in Southeast Columbia.