COLUMBIA — While their donors continue to give generously heading into the holiday season, food bank managers throughout the Carolinas say that they constantly struggle to meet the demand of more and more hungry families.
"I am very thankful that more people are becoming engaged," said Denise Holland, executive director of Harvest Hope Food Bank, a Columbia agency that has seen its donor rolls and fundraising go up by 10 and 21 percent, respectively, this year. "Donations have not quite kept up with what the increase has been, but certainly an increase in donations is very, very helpful."
But the sheer numbers of those in need have been staggering in a state like South Carolina, where unemployment marked its second straight monthly decrease in October - 10.7 percent - but still measured the sixth-highest in the nation. On Monday, the two emergency food pantries at Harvest Hope - which distributes food and household products to more than 400 nonprofit agencies in 20 South Carolina counties - served 750 families, a one-day record.
In the past year, Holland said the number of families served by Harvest Hope has increased by 29 percent, with more than 740,000 families served so far this year. The agency gave more than 2 million prepared meals to soup kitchens, and, in just the first nine months of this year, distributed 13 percent more pounds of food than in all of 2009.
"It really brings it full scope when everybody sees what people just like all of us are experiencing and waiting in line just to be given - they don't have the freedom of a choice to walk into a grocery store and buy what they would like," Holland said. "Because hunger is such a travesty, they are willing to take whatever we have that we can give to them."
In Charleston, Lowcountry Food Bank executive director Jermaine Husser reported similar news. Particularly during the holiday season, Husser said his organization sees more giving from individuals and businesses who are able to fit generosity into their own fiscal plans.
"It's really a tough time for those families to have to go back through this cycle again, especially around the holidays, when they're supposed to be cheerful and giving and in that kind of spirit," Husser said. "People who are fortunate to have a job or are fortunate to be running a small business or a corporation understand what a blessing it is to even be in this environment, the 'new normal.' They're stretching as much they possibly can."
The situation is similar in North Carolina, where the current unemployment rate mirrors national figures, down slightly to 9.6 percent in October. At Raleigh, N.C.'s Catholic Parish Outreach, food pantry director Terry Foley said she has seen no drop-off in donations at the center, which over the month of October doled out a week's worth of groceries to more than 8,000 people.
At Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, a Charlotte, N.C.-based organization that provides food for 19 counties in both Carolinas, executive director Kay Carter said her generous donors still can't keep up with the demand.
"We haven't seen a slowdown in the request for assistance," said Carter. "And we're certainly not bringing in enough donations to take care of the escalating need. I think people are giving all they can give. I think we just have a lot of people that are in a very different financial circumstance than they may have been a year ago or two years ago."
Tight times have also been tight for the donors, who find themselves unable to contribute as much as they did in past years. But to Carter and others in similar positions, the food banks are thankful for what they do get.
"We're heartened by things that we see," Carter said. "It's just been a really hard last couple of years. ... It certainly may be hard for us at the food bank ... but it certainly doesn't compare to the hardships that people are facing."
Heartened by images of heavily laden dinner tables, family festivities and cheerful celebrations, many people may feel most generous during the sprint from the Thanksgiving to Christmas season, organizing family and friends to volunteer a shift at the soup kitchen or food pantry. Both food providers and advocates say they need that generosity to spill over into other parts of the year.
"Hunger doesn't go away after Christmas and after Thanksgiving," said Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Foundation. "What I'm frustrated with is why we're not recognizing that there are just real policy changes that are going to need to be made."
To do that, Berkowitz encourages state-level leaders in the new year to take real strides at improving state government's approach toward tackling hunger, even as economic times continue to be tight.
"Nobody wants to look at their child and say, 'I'm sorry, this is all we've got. We've got to make it last for the week, and I'm not sure we can make it happen,'" Berkowitz said. "Why are we not opening our hearts and our minds that there are policies that we need to be thinking about and programs that need to be continued to be funded?"