IT'S FRIDAY MORNING IN BENNETTSVILLE, and J.S. and Shirley Watson are about to face a hungry crowd. Will there be fresh fruit? Milk for every family? Enough food to fill 250 boxes? The Watsons can tell you this for sure: the line will be long and the need will be great. They run the Bread of Life food pantry in Marlboro County. The stories they hear are the stories of hunger in rural South Carolina.
J.S. Watson has volunteered to operate this pantry for 20 years, his wife helping him for the last 15. It’s a lot of work and responsibility, picking up donations and having food ready to give away. “I have a lot of running to do,” J.S. Watson says, “but I don’t mind.” Shirley Watson registers the people who show up for help. “We have quite a few families where both the husband and wife were working. The wife was laid off, then the husband. These families have three to five children, no income, and unemployment has run out. What we’re giving them is not enough, but it’s all we can offer,” she says.
You don’t have to be poor with an empty cupboard to feel how hunger hurts. All of South Carolina has been particularly hard-hit by unemployment in the so-called “Great Recession,” but poverty is higher in the rural counties than in urban areas. With poverty comes food insecurity, defined as not having dependable access to enough nutritional food to meet basic needs. South Carolina has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation and the need for assistance has never been greater. “There’s record demand, no doubt,” says Barry Forde, associate director of Golden Harvest Food Bank. “We’ve seen almost a 50 percent increase.”
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Stories of rural poverty and hunger are easy to overlook, Forde says. “You don’t see street people. That doesn’t exist. So it’s not on the minds of people as much.”
A different set of challenges
Forde has worked for two food banks in South Carolina, Low Country which serves South Carolina’s coastal counties, and now Golden Harvest, which supports programs in the western part of the state. Twenty or 30 years ago, he says, people in South Carolina’s rural counties looked out for their neighbors more, helped each other directly. But with people moving frequently and younger generations relocating to cities, there’s less of a connection now. “People don’t know the people who live three doors away,” Forde says.
Not only are people’s struggles less likely to be known in rural areas, but the journey to find help is longer and more complicated too. Rural counties, where farmlands are growing acres upon acres of food, often wind up being food deserts for the poor who live there. Along with a lack of grocery stores, services are fewer. Food pantries and soup kitchens may operate miles away and are open less often. Families living on small incomes may not have transportation—or may be spending a high proportion of their incomes to commute to jobs.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—what most people know as food stamps—can help but doesn’t solve these problems. People in rural areas who get SNAP may not have a grocery store nearby. Funds are usually sufficient to cover food needs for only part of the month; SNAP cards are spent out by most people in about two-and-a-half weeks.
Finding creative solutions
At a parking lot in Clarendon County, the wheels stop, the side panels roll up, and a truck transforms into a mobile pantry in an area where there’s no permanent place to distribute food. On this day, 125 families have pre-registered for boxes. Another 40 or 50 will walk up. The truck, owned by Harvest Hope, makes 30 stops like this every month.
Jay Parler manages the mobile pantry. “We pick spots where there’s no service and fill in to help families lost in the shuffle. If they can’t get to us, we have to do our best to get to them,” he says. Parler’s program is lucky to have a new vehicle donated by Kraft, designed specifically to meet a pantry’s needs. Part of the truck is refrigerated, giving Harvest Hope the ability to bring a wider variety of foods— including fresh produce.
“Studies have shown that if people have to drive more than three miles, they’ll go without food,” says Parler, in many cases because they can’t afford to travel farther. Mobile pantries are just one creative solution organizations are bringing to South Carolina’s rural areas. In some areas, Meals on Wheels may deliver a week’s worth of frozen meals to a rural senior citizen. In other places, backpack programs in schools make sure children head home for the weekend with a two-day supply of food.
Some programs are managed by large food banks with multiple resources. Others are grassroots efforts, supported by churches, local civic groups, companies and electric cooperatives. While the state’s large food banks tend to have the highest profiles, food is given out in large part by people at the local level.
This distribution system, in some ways, mirrors that of a grocery store chain, with large food banks acting as collection and distribution centers supplying items to a variety of programs at the local level. There are four food banks serving South Carolina—Low Country, Golden Harvest, Harvest Hope and Second Harvest. These banks collect from major corporations such as Walmart and through food drives. They also use donations to purchase supplies in bulk. They’re staffed and equipped to find, pick up, warehouse and distribute food.
Pantries are primary local outlets. “That’s where the rubber meets the road,” says Forde. “The advantage of that system is that they know their people.” While their local connections are invaluable, rural food pantries as points of distribution aren’t always ideal. Many are open only one day a month. “If you’re hungry on Tuesday and the pantry opens a week and a half from then, what do you do?” asks Forde.
Bread of Life is typical of these pantries doing their best to meet rural needs. Supported by the United Way, local churches, civic groups and Marlboro Electric Cooperative, Bread of Life is staffed entirely by volunteers. In this tough economy, Shirley Watson says they may see as many as 230 families come through each time. “We served close to 6,000 families in 2010,” she says, with the pantry open just two mornings a month. With more volunteers, Bread of Life is now open every Friday morning.
Parler says mobile pantries also have limitations. “When we do a mobile pantry, it’s emergency assistance. Everybody needs to eat. We can cover that for a few days, but we’re not the long-term fix. What’s needed most is consistency.”
Everyone can help
Where that consistency will come from is hard to say. “This is not simplistic. It’s not ‘put a stamp on it and we fix it,’ ” Forde says. “You look at the long-term impact on our country, on health, on education. It really is a lose-lose.”
Being part of the solution, however, is not complicated, Forde tells us. You merely need to take action, any action, and you can lessen the impact of hunger for someone this week. You can find a way to help within a few miles of your front door. “I always tell people to go see your local pantry in action, see what they do. Look at the people getting help. Look at the work the volunteers do,” Forde says. “That’ll get you going.”
Shirley Watson wants to make sure the work of volunteers is emphasized, saying “without them, there’s no way we could do it.” And helping people who come to the pantry can be surprisingly uplifting, at times when you least expect it. “Yes, it’s kind of sad,” she says, to see families facing hard times, “but people are hopeful. They’ll tell me they’re looking for work and say, ‘God willing, I won’t be back next month.’”