Nethania Lewis & Kevin Seabrook

(Rock Hill, S.C.) – Homelessness and food insecurity were already problems in Rock Hill, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the city saw a 13 percent increase in the number of homeless from 2017 to 2018.

As the pandemic forced many businesses to shut down, many Americans faced the reality of losing their jobs while still having to provide food for their families.

However, during the height of the pandemic in August 2020, the Mercantile, located on West White Street in Rock Hill, came up with a way to help those in need by starting the Rock Hill Community Fridge.

“The community fridge is something we have located outside of the store and is exactly what it sounds like, we are open 24/7 for you to drop off food or take food and it’s not just for the homeless population,” said Brittany Kelly, owner of The Mercantile.

The idea came from two young sisters, Aubrey and Amelia Johnson, who approached Kelly and her husband about the prospect of starting the community fridge.

“I want to say (they’re) 9 years old,” said Kelly. “The Johnson girls they came up with the idea and they saw it out in Seattle, and I just thought it was something I’d like to get on board with for the community. They just said if I can make it happen, they would keep it stocked and sure enough they have and it just blew up.”

Since opening last summer, the community fridge has seen an increase in the number of people who have benefited from it.

“Its been incredible. I mean the first few days that we were doing stats and all, we have a camera by the fridge so we can record our stats, we had to keep those for a month so you know we were so happy and thrilled to see 20 people a day, but now we average between 100 and 150 a day that we feed,” said Kelly.

The fridge has also seen an increase in the number of items donated, as it has been promoted on Facebook and Instagram.

“Some things we recommend (donating) are single dosed sized things like cheese sticks, apple sauce, canned goods are always great, deli meat, bread, eggs, milk, water bottles are a huge one, because so many people just need some water,” said Kelly. “Anything pantry related, so canned goods, chips, oatmeal and stuff like that is great.”

Fresh produce, fruit, vegetables, bread and juice are other recommended items, but Kelly said people can also donate personal items, such as feminine products, tampons or condoms.

Employees at the Mercantile say it’s exciting to see how the community has responded to support the project.

Comm Fridge Art
Art work outside the community fridge highlights figures related to food insecurity (photo: Nethania Lewis).

“It has been a really great way for the community to come together and help those who need groceries and things of that sort,” said Elena Walrod, a store associate.

“We’ve also met a lot of different church groups and volunteer groups and a lot of people have really just become involved and want to help the community even with just a few bags of groceries or a whole thing from Sam’s Club. Everyone in the community has come out to help and volunteer and it has just been a really kind and warming experience,” said Walrod.

“Especially with everything going on today, it’s just encouraging to see the families that have come and adopted (the community fridge) or the businesses that have (donated) as a whole. I don’t know, it’s just really humbling to see that and just see how much the community cares for other people,” said Stacy Whittman, an employee at the Mercantile.

“I think that our community has come together a lot more and united over something (like the community fridge), which is very positive to see,” said Erin Anderson, another employee. “People are coming out with kids, especially if they’re not in school; that has been really helpful, so that has been really nice to see young people learning how to take care of people.”

Alicia Oliva, who also works at the Mercantile, said the community fridge has become an important asset to the community.

“It’s one of those things that really gives back to the community. It’s for the community, by the community, so that means everyone has to pitch in when they can, even if you’re getting or if you’re giving,” said Oliva.

“It’s just very important that there’s that balance of giving back and taking and I just think that the community fridge is amazing and it’s definitely impacted our community in a very great way.”

The Rock Hill Community Fridge is available 24 hours a day for individuals to pick up, but also drop off food items, as needed.

* Caroline Sewell produced the profile of the Mercantile (below).