For South Carolina families, food banks help ease the grip of hunger

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Sometimes the line forms before the doors open at 9 a.m. at Harvest Hope Food Bank, a part of the Feeding America network. Chris Daly, chief operating officer of Harvest Hope, told me on Tuesday, “It gets you when they’re here before you.” The father of four said he can’t imagine the stress level of the clients, some trying to keep their children calm during what may be a two-hour wait. Harvest Hope tries to be “hospitable, quick and respectful,” he said.

The cavernous Columbia facility is part distribution center, supplier — with the agency’s other facilities — to about 500 partners in 20 South Carolina counties that feed some 38,000 people a week with what amounts to 30 million pounds of food a year. Also important is Harvest Hope’s role as a food pantry, where families can come Monday through Friday to pick up the protein, dairy products, produce and bakery goods that will help them through tough times. “You never get more than a few feet away from the end goal of the mission,” Daly said. “It keeps you grounded.”

In the United States, the child food insecurity rate, according to Feeding America data, is at 22.4 percent. In a list that no state wants to lead, South Carolina ties with Mississippi in the No. 10 spot at 27.4 percent. The numbers say that in South Carolina, 292,800 children out of a total under-18 population of 1,067,813 live in food insecure households.

Job losses increase food insecurity

Virginia Briggs, 49, said she had never visited a food pantry before this year. “Food is so expensive,” she said, and she has a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son at home. “They eat so much.” Her husband of 27 years was laid off from his janitorial job about three months ago, and she’s come to Harvest Hope about once a month since then, driving more than an hour from her Clarendon County home. While she said she worries more about families who make do with even less and those who are homeless, she admitted that it’s been stressful during her husband’s job search. “He’s tried to be a provider.”

Briggs has hope, though. She has cooked at a nursing home, and now works part time as a substitute teacher and a home health care aide. She has attended a jobs fair in Manning, where Gov. Nikki Haley offered encouraging words about industry coming to the state, and Briggs sees a future in teaching. “God put me there to encourage them to do better than I’ve done.” Her daughter wants to be a lawyer, and her son, who spends a lot of his time at a recreation center, dreams of a career as a professional athlete. Briggs, who nurtures a garden, with squash, collards and cabbage supplementing family meals, hopes to return to school and eventually teach agriculture.

Harvest Hope is making its own push toward agriculture, “a sustainable model,” said Daly. “It will take grant funding and some investment dollars to get it off the ground so there’s a long term solution to the food supply.” There are even a few plots taking shape on the agency’s grounds.

But right now, there are more immediate challenges to meet. The crisis for children in need increases during summer months, when they can no longer depend on the free and reduced price breakfasts and lunches schools provide and donations may slip because of the distractions of vacations and other seasonal preoccupations.

“That’s two meals a day that they have to cover at home,” said Daly. “There are summer programs but they’re not that many.” Resolving child care and transportation issues only add to the daily hurdles financially and food-stressed families face. Harvest Hope sponsors some large food drives just before summer, and Daly said, “I can tell you, people in South Carolina are generous.” During the school year, Harvest Hope Food Bank’s Kids Cafe provides hot meals to children in low-income after-school programs at nonprofits that don’t charge a fee.

Volunteers help fill in staffing gaps. On Tuesday, a group from Colonial Life insurance company, which is a regular partner, pitched in. Bridget Lytton’s job was separating out bulk donations of cereal and preparing boxes for distribution. The assistant vice president of the premier client services team said she grew up in a large family and was fortunate. “I never was hungry.” Volunteers need to advocate more, she said, just talk to family, friends and neighbors and get them concerned and involved about a problem that can seem invisible.

The South Carolina that passes through Harvest Hope’s doors is not the tourist draw of beaches, golf courses and historic homes. The textile industry that long employed generations has mostly left the country.

Carol Williams said there are mansions not far from the Pontiac Church of Christ in Elgin, S.C., where she is secretary and her husband, Bill, the minister. But there is also need. Through word of mouth, those who live in the area know they can come to the church the third Saturday of every month. They feed about 35 to 40 families with food from Harvest Hope, some given, some bought for 19 cents a pound (a maximum fee set by Feeding America). Williams grew up in Miami in a big family with a single mother on assistance who still managed to help others. “It’s sad, it really is sad for a society not to care,” she said. “You can really tell when a child is in need.” Williams is enthusiastic about Harvest Hope’s BackPack Program, which provides school children with a backpack of nutritious, easy-to-open foods, like canned ravioli, to last over the weekend.

Though at 8 percent, unemployment in South Carolina is lower than it’s been in five years, the number varies from county to county. Harvest Hope serves a mix of rural and urban areas. Daly said when the housing and construction industry suffered, he could see it in the lines at the food pantry before it made headlines. “They were all saying they were out of work — a mix of medical bills, just lost my job or some other crisis like a death in the family or unemployment is going to run out,” he said. While he said he thinks it’s starting to level out a little bit, he still sees a lot of seniors trying to meet medical expenses. “I don’t know if it means it’s getting better or that we’re just exchanging problems.”

‘I don’t eat much, as long as I have my tea’

Harvest Hope started about 32 years ago, the vision of two business people and two nuns who wanted to do something about the hunger problem in Columbia. With the help of the Feeding America model, it has grown. In April 2013, Harvest Hope in Columbia facility served 9,721, up from 9,085 in April 2012. That doesn’t include the numbers from other facilities in Greenville, Florence, an emergency food pantry in Lexington County and mobile units. Twenty trucks pick up supplies from retail and wholesale outlets, food that might end up in landfills.

Clients show identification and answer a few questions about employment and income to keep track of poverty and hunger trends. The average client visits three times. “It’s grateful people who just need temporary assistance to get themselves back on track,” said Daly.

On Tuesday, Gwen Faircloth, 52, visited Harvest Hope with her 15-year-old daughter, Emily Allie Jane Faircloth. She had worked before rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult, helping clients at the Salvation Army, she said. “I’m used to sitting on the other side of the table.”

Faircloth also has two sons, 20 and 17, and the family lives in a double-wide trailer at the edge of Columbia; she has been to Harvest Hope five or six times since her oldest son lost his job as a meat-cutter at a grocery store. Every family member is looking for work, but “it’s been hard because there are just no jobs,” she said.

“All these teenagers, you know how they eat. I don’t eat so much so that my children can eat — as long as I have my tea,” she said, finishing off a tall plastic cupful. Emily, concentrating on an iPod a friend had given her, said, “I share mine with my mamma.”

Faircloth is hopeful, and brags about her daughter’s dream to be a photographer. In a difficult situation, she praised her treatment at Harvest Hope. “The people here are really nice.” But on this day, a solution seemed beyond her. “It gets so you don’t really know what would make it better when you get this low.”

This report was produced as part of a collaboration with, and NBC’s owned television stations

Follow Mary on Twitter @mcurtisnc3