Uncle Willie’s Grocery Store is one of the first in years to bring healthy grocery items to NOMA’s food desert. (Photos by Leah DeFreitas)
Christa Williams remembers a time when her neighbors sold snacks out of their homes.
Today, she works to bring that vision of food accessibility for her community back to life.
Uncle Willie’s grocery store brings healthy groceries to a long-underserved food desert on Columbia’s Main Street.
North Main, known locally as NOMA, is where Black small business owner Christa Williams chose to open her bodega-style grocery store. The store is an investment in a community struggling to maintain access to affordable food.
Uncle Willie’s sits about a block north of Elmwood Avenue in an area defined as a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Williams chose a building for her store that would serve the Elmwood Park and Hyatt Park neighborhoods, where an overlap of food and transportation access issues contribute to NOMA’s food desert.
“One of the things that we decided before we opened the business was to focus on the total health of a person,” Williams said.
Williams’ convenience store doesn’t carry cigarettes or alcohol. And, whether it’s oxtail, canned beans, snacks, or a popular locally made collard kimchi, Williams is able to tailor her store’s supply to the wants and needs of her community.
“I’ve seen some products I’ve never seen before, like the muscadine grape juice,” said Charles Brevard, who has frequented the store since its opening.
Brevard said it was difficult to get groceries on this side of the city before Uncle Willie’s.
“There’s not that much on this street,” Brevard said. “They closed a lot of stuff.”
The grocery store is one of many small, Black-owned businesses that have pioneered North Main Street. The shop’s sparkling new signage can be found just across the street from a former convenience store that sits empty and abandoned. Several stores in this part of town struggled to stay open in recent years, said Ashley Page of the city’s Columbia Food Policy Committee.
“When those closed, it really created a vacuum for people to access food,” Page said.
The committee works to promote sustainability, economic development and food justice for neighborhoods. Page said she admires Williams’ drive.
“She is doing some really good work,” Page said.
Williams is an army veteran and former supervisor at the S.C. Department of Corrections. After she lost a close election for Columbia City Council in 2021, Williams wanted to continue working on food accessibility.
“I was able to look at different parts of the district that were considered food deserts,” Williams said.
She secured a location within a mile of Hyatt Park, which she said was important because it addressed the concerns of the immediate area. Senior citizens and locals with transportation difficulties were more likely to be able to walk to Uncle Willie’s to pick up simple grocery items or cleaning supplies.
Williams said more stores like Uncle Willie’s should push to open around town. She draws inspiration from mom-and-pop shops and bodegas that are common in northern U.S. cities.
“It’s smaller square footage, less inventory – but it’s more convenient for everybody in the community,” Williams said. “When neighborhoods have a neighborhood store, that closes the gap on having transportation issues, because they can literally walk out of their homes and walk to a grocery store.”
Williams said she remembers from her childhood how members of her church sold snacks out of the kitchens of their homes.
“They lived on a long dirt road,” she said. “A lot of people went over there and got pickles. They got potato chips. They got fruit. To me, it’s more empowerment for the community because someone that’s local to the community is able to help those around them.”
Williams said Uncle Willie’s has had the support of NOMA to stay successful at the six month mark. To Williams, her store represents a vision of what healthy communities could look like.
“More people should try doing the same thing in their communities,” Williams said.