It’s hard to be in any sort of holiday spirit on an empty stomach. It’s also tough to have to choose between a Christmas gift for your child or a meal – and is downright heartbreaking when the gift is the meal. This is the Grand Strand, not the Dust Bowl during the Depression.
Hunger is a huge issue in this country, our supposed Land of Plenty, let alone globally. Like the GEICO commercials, everybody knows that. In our neck of the woods, hunger and homelessness abound and often go hand-in-hand. Unless you have been living in a media vacuum or under a rock, we all seem know this too. But hunger is not simply the domain of the homeless or destitute. Some people are a docked paycheck, car mishap or medical emergency away from hunger. Others are homebound by illness, injury or advanced age - and shockingly, a number of children may go hungry on a daily basis.
In Horry County alone, with a permanent population of 270,943, nearly 16 percent of residents are considered food insecure, according to recent statistics from Feeding America [www.feedingamerica.org] a nationwide network of food banks and the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization. This means that an estimated 42,850 people are food insecure right here in our sunny little seaside paradise. Oxford Dictionaries online defines food insecurity as the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
Thankfully, there are people and organizations here to help. Although their methodologies and philosophies might differ, the common thread of working to get food into the hands – and the mouths – of the hungry remains a constant.
FILLING THE TRAILER
Myrtle Beach classic rock station WAVE 104.1 program director and radio personality Scott Mann has had his finger on the pulse of the local hunger issue going on 12 years. Every November for just as long, Mann has been the public face – and voice – of WAVE 104.1’s Marathon for Meals at Broadway at the Beach. The concept is simple: Mann lives and broadcasts on site for a week until a motorcycle trailer donated by the Socastee Heritage Festival is filled with non-perishable food items and other essentials to benefit Helping Hand of Myrtle Beach and the Community Kitchen of Myrtle Beach.
“I am there for seven days, 24-hours-a-day,” said Mann. “I don’t leave. My meals are provided by the restaurants. I check in on the air every hour from 6 p.m. to 2 p.m.. I do my air shift from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., and then I check in every hour from 7 p.m. until midnight.” Indeed, in 12 years, Mann has only been offsite three times to take care of pressing business – and then only very briefly.
He has done the Marathon for Meals with what his doctor called the worst case of poison ivy he had ever seen. “One year, I threw my back out lifting a case of cans the second day and I spent the whole week with an ice pack on my back. Then there was the year I did the Marathon on a chemo break.” As many are aware, Mann is a cancer survivor.
This year’s kickoff starts at noon on Saturday and will double as the WAVE 104.1 Birthday Music Festival, featuring a dozen musical acts, mascots, circus performers, painters, flow artists and more.
“My hope is that we will have so many people come to our Birthday Music Festival – all of them will bring food, and we will have that trailer half-filled by the time I go to bed Saturday night,” said Mann, who speculated that if the other half can be filled by the following Wednesday, they could actually empty it and start over again. “That has never happened. I would love to see that happen this year.”
Mann’s philosophy about hunger cuts to the chase:
“What’s more important than feeding people? If you don’t have any food, all of the rest of the stuff really kind of takes second place. I think the only things that might be more important would be air and water. Otherwise, I don’t care what your problem is. If you can’t eat, it’s secondary.”
Addressing hunger on the local level is paramount. “When I do the Marathon for Meals, I know where everything goes. I know what they do with it. There is never a question.”
Indeed, the food literally goes two blocks away. Helping Hand and the Community Kitchen share space at the Elizabeth Chapin Patterson Community Assistance Center on Mr. Joe White Avenue in Myrtle Beach. “All of it goes right over there, and I bring it over there with the help of Dennis [Reynolds, of Socastee Heritage Foundation] and volunteers to help unload it. But the food is with me until we deliver it. Sometimes it’s just all about doing the right thing.”
For those somehow unable to make it out to Broadway at the Beach, Marathon for Meals has set up additional drop-off points in the area [see sidebar].
Marathon for Meals also benefits the Community Kitchen, which is always in need of items suitable to help serve large groups.
“Community Kitchen provides hot meals and sometimes they get neglected” said Mann. “Chefs come in and volunteer their time. I would say 75 percent of donations or more go to Helping Hand. About a quarter of the donations we get are suitable for Community Kitchen, and I would like to see that improve. They need #10 cans – the ones they use in restaurants – and 25-pound sacks of rice [or dry beans] – industrial size.”
Mann was quick to point out that hunger is not an issue exclusive to the homeless.
“A lot of people who go to Helping Hand are not homeless and they are not unemployed,” he said. “They are not lazy people who won’t get a job. There are people who have a job, two jobs, three jobs – no insurance – no benefits – can’t get 40 hours a week in one job so they have to make it up in more than one job. They need this help to get this food they can’t afford. A lot of older people are choosing between food and medicine, and that’s wrong.”
And as far as the homeless are concerned, Mann is not one to mince words:
“The idea that hungry people are a bunch of dirty, disgusting, lazy people who won’t get a job – and want to live in the street – is the most idiotic, foolish, ridiculous, ludicrous stereotype ever. I am sure that if you tried real hard, you could go out and find somebody who wants to be homeless. I am sure, if you tried, you could go out and find somebody whose attitude is, ‘why should I get a job when they will feed me for free?’ But I am also sure that for every one of those people, you can find or I can find a multitude of people who would give anything to just be able to put a meal in front of their kids without having to ask somebody else for it. OK? It’s upsetting and it’s hurtful.”
EMERGENCIES DON’T WAIT
Helping Hand executive director Tina Shuppy says the hunger issue on the Grand Strand is fairly predictable, to a certain degree. “There are spikes, but in this area you can see those coming,” she said. “This is the time of year for us where it’s getting extremely busy for us because a lot of people had their hours cut or their jobs were seasonal. We have a lot of people that are underemployed and underpaid, and so that’s always an issue in this area – the food issue.”
Helping Hand [www.helpinghandofmyrtlebeach.com], according to Shuppy, is a short-term crisis agency. “We try to be here for people for a variety of needs. We are not a government agency. What we are here to do is to help them with that emergency when they fall through the cracks and have nowhere else to turn.”
Helping Hand does everything from helping with rent or utilities or providing bus tickets or gasoline. There might be a medical emergency or car repair. “Something comes up that throws them off,” she said. “So many people live paycheck-to-paycheck, so that’s kind of where we kick in. We have moms come in here and they need diapers. Do you know how expensive formula and diapers are?”
To be sure, some of these moms can apply for WIC (Women, Infants and Children) supplemental nutrition program, but sometimes there is a waiting period before the benefits kick in. “So they can come to us and get a can of formula or they can come get diapers. Those are essential and they are so expensive,” said Shuppy.
She says the agency is sort of a catch-all. “You can come and ask us for whatever it is you need, and if we can’t help you, we try to keep up on other agencies that offer services so that we can refer people to the proper agency for assistance.”
Although some associate Helping Hand with the homeless, Shuppy asserts that more than 80 percent of clients are not homeless. “They are just living paycheck-to-paycheck.”
The need for food is constant at Helping Hand. In October, the agency provided food for 946 households for a total of more than 2,000 people. “November is probably going to be heavy, and December is going to be heavy.”
Shuppy says that keeping food on the shelves time of year is characteristically difficult, but she is excited because November is when the food drives begin throughout the holidays. “Scott [Mann] kind of kicks that off, and the schools start contributing – so we are looking to having a feast here pretty soon with a lot of food. This helps us out and gets our shelves replenished – and gives us a good kick into the next year.”
Donations from Marathon for Meals could carry Helping Hand into early spring. “It just depends on what the need is,” she said. “It can go a little bit faster, but definitely [Marathon for Meals] is one of the most important food drives that we have. It really jumpstarts everything during the season here.”
Another resource for Helping Hand is the Lowcountry Food Bank’s Grand Strand Distribution Center in Myrtle Beach, where Shuppy can procure items under USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program or other products that might be on hand. Helping Hand is also sponsored by 10 local member churches and operates on financial donations from organizations and individuals. If funds have been designated strictly for food, Shuppy says Helping Hand can shop for food at traditional grocery retailers.
“I have to tell you, we have a wonderful community,” she said. “In my 10 years here, I can’t say enough about the people in Horry County. If you ask, they will provide it. It’s just letting them know that you need it, and when you do that they respond.”
Meanwhile, in October, the Community Kitchen served 11,415 people, making the year-to-date total 109,076, based on a Tweet by Executive Director, Deacon Peter M. Casamento, who was on vacation and unavailable for comment while we were preparing this article.
A glance at the Community Kitchen of Myrtle Beach’s “about” section on its Facebook page beautifully summed up the organization’s raison d’etre:
“The Community Kitchen [www.community-kitchen-of-myrtle-beach.com], does not only serve the homeless of Myrtle Beach. We feed anyone who is hungry, the working poor, children, our veterans, senior citizens who struggle to make ends meet, in addition to the homeless. Every person who comes to us for assistance is welcomed, without regard to race, sex, age, color, national origin, religious preference, handicap or income.”
Lowcountry Food Bank President and CEO Pat Walker, like Shuppy, says that the numbers for hunger are staying constant and roughly the same in the Grand Strand area. “Although the economy seems to be rebounding, we find our clients are some of the last to feel the effects,” she said. “Children and seniors are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity- roughly half of the people we serve belong to those populations.”
“At the Lowcountry Food Bank [www.lowcountryfoodbank.org], we always say that the face of hunger will surprise you. The face of hunger looks like you or me. The family or senior on your street who has an unexpected job loss or medical bills or wages that don’t keep pace with the rising costs of living could now be facing some of the hardest choices to make in the name of feeding themselves or their family. Our clients face unimaginable choices every day - pay for food or pay for other necessities like utilities, medical care, or housing.”
But what exactly is the Lowcountry Food Bank?
“We function as a clearinghouse of sorts for food that comes from multiple sources,” said Walker. “The food is then distributed through a network of partner agencies to individuals struggling with hunger. Those agencies could be a soup kitchen, a pantry, or a homeless shelter. We rely heavily on schools as a means of reaching children who are struggling with hunger as well.”
She said it takes many “food streams” to distribute 21 million pounds of food for a year in 10 counties. “We source a great deal of food through partnerships with local grocers, community food drives, and then we also purchase food. Through the Feeding America network, we can source food by the truckload at a fraction of the price available to consumers. This is critical when food needs are specific, such as with our Backpack Buddies and School Pantry child feeding programs. Our Growing Food Locally program also sources produce from small scale local farmers. We are so grateful for all the partners who help to ensure that we can source the food our clients need in the most economical way possible.”
UNDER THE UMBRELLA
In July 2013, an umbrella organization emerged in Myrtle Beach called New Directions [www.myndhc.org], which now provides financial oversight and program management for three existing organizations: Street Reach Homeless Shelter, LifeLine Domestic Violence Shelter and the Center for Women and Children Transitional Shelter. Executive Director Kathy Jenkins was hired at the end of May 2013.
“Whether we are talking homeless and transitional at Street Reach or whether we are talking domestic violence or whether we are talking Center for Women and Children – which is a longer term transitional program – our real mission is to help people move out of poverty and homelessness and help them get back on their feet,” she said, adding that the aim is to also help people regain their financial footing and self-respect. “It’s all about change.”
Street Reach, for instance offers programs designed to get folks back into society, per se, and into the work force, housing and feeding roughly 150 residents per day.
We asked if anybody could come in and eat dinner if they were hungry, regardless of whether they were signed up for a program.
“At this time and always in the past, we have offered an evening meal for anybody who is hungry,” said Jenkins. “The Community Kitchen offers a lunchtime meal, and we don’t duplicate services. In fact, part of our mission is not to duplicate services that are already offered somewhere else. But we always cook a hot evening meal and anybody who is hungry can come and eat.” The only caveat is that people can come as long as they haven’t been banned from the property for some reason. There is no tolerance for drugs, alcohol or weapons on the property.
And Jenkins says she has discussions with others within New Directions about hunger versus homelessness. “The fact is, just because somebody graduates from one of our programs does not necessarily mean that they are not still going to occasionally need help,” she said. “We always want to be available to serve those who are really trying to make an effort. Maybe they are not homeless, but they might still need assistance to get a meal. We are not interested in anybody going hungry.”
What New Directions is interested in, according to Jenkins, is doing what they can to motivate people who are homeless. “We will help in any way that we can – to overcome obstacles and help them get employment and eventually move into permanent housing when they are stable. That’s our goal, and feeding people is part of that.”
New Directions is partnered with the City of Myrtle Beach. We asked public information officer Mark Kruea for a progress report. He told us that New Directions has made significant strides over its first year or so of operation.
“New Directions has many success stories already about the individuals and families who’ve found jobs, moved into apartments and are again self-sufficient, instead of relying on assistance from others. As a community, we still have many people who need help – both immediate and long-term – and we hope that other agencies will look toward the success shown so far by New Directions as a model for the future.”
The idea is that giving somebody a handout sustains their current condition of homelessness. “The goal is to give them not only the emergency assistance they need (food and shelter), but also the support, training, skills and tools needed to escape homelessness. Feeding a person who is hungry is a good thing to do, but it doesn’t help them not be homeless. It’s a temporary solution. Helping someone get their life back is a permanent solution and a great thing to do. And part of that recovery includes responsibility.”
By responsibility, Kruea pointed out that long-stay residents at Street Reach now pay rent. “And then there’s Street Reach Enterprises, a company established to allow residents to work and acquire skills. They are contracting to help with the set-up and clean-up from special events, with park maintenance and other businesses’ needs.”
This idea didn’t sit well with the Community Kitchen’s Casamento, who wrote an op-ed last year that appeared on the hyper local news site, the Digitel [www.thedigitel.com].
“We need to be conscious of the present economic times especially on the Grand Strand where our primary economy is supported by tourism. I encourage all of you to come to the Community Kitchen and witness those we serve. It is not only the homeless, it is the working poor, senior citizens, children, veterans, and individuals like you and me, who need temporary assistance and come to us for a nutritious hot meal. The City of Myrtle Beach recognizes the problem, but now fails to assist in the feeding of the hungry without mandates.”
FEEDING KIDS FOR 25 YEARS
In 1989, Barb Mains set about with her sister and a friend as volunteers to help people in Horry County who were impacted by Hurricane Hugo. What she saw was eye-opening.
“As we went further out into the county, we found people who hadn’t really lost a lot from the hurricane – but who never had anything to begin with,” she said. “There were people with no bathrooms or stoves. It was really bad, and so we really just kept going.”
Mains said they finally figured out that the best thing they could do was to help keep kids enrolled in school, and make sure they had the right clothes, shoes, equipment and food so they could go to school, get an education and perhaps get out of their poverty cycle.
The result is Help4Kids/Backpack Buddies [www.help4kidssc.org], an organization that now prepares more than 3,200 bags of food and delivers them to 29 schools in Horry County with the help of the Knights of Columbus from St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Garden City Beach. On Fridays before the end of school, these bags are put into the kids’ backpacks.
“Years ago, we found out that a lot of kids are home on Friday and they don’t get to eat until Monday when they got back to school. We have done everything in our power to make sure that kids don’t go hungry.”
Mains’ Backpack Buddies is not affiliated with the Lowcountry Food Bank’s program of the same name. “Theirs is not in Horry County,” she said. “Conway Hospital has Smart Snacks they do four schools. I do 29 others. Backpack Buddies is a name that is used all over the U.S. just by private organizations.”
On weekends, vans roll out, filled with more food and other resources such as school supplies, clothing and shoes. “We go into trailer parks and cul-de-sacs where we know a lot of kids are,” said Mains.
The summers are covered as well with what Help4Kids calls a Summer Feeding Program. “We get churches out in the country, and they have volunteers and then the kids go there. We furnish food, books, clothes – and they have a real little camp setting.” This program continues until school starts again.
Although Mains says that hunger will likely never be eradicated, she knows that a lot of folks are doing their part to help. “In 29 schools, we know there are no kids going hungry on the weekends.”
HELPING THE HOMEBOUND
A church-supported volunteer organization called Mobile Meals of the Grand Strand has been active in providing meals to the homes of those who need them, with an emphasis on the elderly, shut-ins and the homebound.
Nick Gennarelli, president of the South Strand chapter, has been a volunteer with Mobile Meals for 18 years, headquartered at Shepherd of the Sea Lutheran Church in Murrells Inlet.
Mobile Meals provides one hot meal a day to its recipients.
“We have 50 homebound clients,” he said. “Some of them can’t leave home anymore and want to be independent. Some of them are short-term and can’t walk around – this could be coming out of the hospital with knee work or something where that can’t get around. And we have long-term people who are 70-80-90 that really can’t function on their own and shouldn’t be around a stove or microwave.”
Although funding is provided by a number of sponsor churches, the United Way and individual donations, some of the recipients pay for their meals. “I have two people who go out and interview to assess needs, and they have enough experience to know if they are capable of paying,” he said. “It they can’t pay, we’re surely not going to put them off.”
Because he deals with the elderly, he spoke of what is known as the Greatest Generation. “The old generation are not really handout people. Even if it’s a dollar – they want to pay their way if they can.”
The South Strand chapter runs from the Backgate interchange into Murrells Inlet. “We have two vans. One runs down (S.C.) 707 and the other one works Pirateland and Ocean Lakes Campground into Surfside Beach and Deerfield.”
“It’s a good feeling to give back to somebody else,” said Gennarelli, who is a retiree from the newspaper industry. “I have had so much fun over the last 18 years or so. I think that’s what God put us here to do – help someone else.”
Grace Sorensen began feeding the hungry and homeless when she lived in New Jersey, taking trips into Newark or to Penn Station in New York City during Christmas to give away coffee and sandwiches. When she moved to Myrtle Beach, somebody at Bay Naturals told her about Bill Davis, who has been very active in feeding the homeless since he retired five years ago, and who had been making news, tooling around on his bicycle and handing out food to the homeless.
Sorensen called him and got involved. Davis told her that people had a table set up on a plot of land off U.S. 501 in Myrtle Beach by Broadway Street. “A woman had a house there, and there was an empty dirt plot next to her house,” she said. A group of like-minded folks would come to the location, bearing food items and other essentials for the homeless in the area. “But as luck would have it, she sold the house and the new people wouldn’t let us use the property. Everybody just kind of scattered.”
For a couple of weeks, though, Sorensen said people were going to Davis’ house, preparing and packing up meals for distribution – and taking them to Chapin Park. “There are only so many meals you can put on the back of his bike,” she said. “We brought stuff to the park, distributing it and taking off before the cops got there.”
But now the group has seemingly dispersed. “We all wound up doing our own thing,” she said.
She continues to employ what she calls her Trojan House tactics. “You have to disperse everything and take off before you get nailed.” She adds that if a person is found giving away more than 10 meals, he or she can be cited and fined by the city. “I don’t know if they make good on it, because when Bill got thrown out of the park, they were just issued a warning and they didn’t go back. Then they found the property off 501, so nobody tested it to the limits.”
Sorensen is asking for the same thing Davis has been asking for – a place to distribute these items. “If there is anybody out there that can come up with a solution or offer an area where we can serve these people or if anybody has any ideas or thoughts, please let us know.” She can be reached by e-mail at: email@example.com.
We asked Captain David Knipes, spokesperson for the Myrtle Beach Police Department, how often the agency has given out citations to folks giving out food to the hungry or homeless, and he told us that he could think of only one such citation issued, a park ordinance violation. The typical fine for this is $469.
The City of Myrtle Beach Code of Ordinances Division 7, Public Parks, Section Sec. 14-316(a) lays the legality out like this:
“Unlawful to conduct large group feeding without a facility use permit and compliance with health regulations. For purposes of this section, large group feeding is defined as an event in which the provider prepares meals off-site for distribution to persons unrelated or unaffiliated, in such an amount that service of same can only be accomplished by more than one server or the event is attended by more than ten members of the general public, either with or without remuneration, in a park or park facility owned or controlled by the city, including adjacent sidewalks and rights-of-way in the City of Myrtle Beach.”
Public information officer Kruea offered this advice on behalf of the City:
“We would encourage others who wish to help those in need to work with and through the existing service agencies, including New Directions, Helping Hand, Myrtle Beach Haven, the Community Kitchen and many others, most of which are under the United Way’s big umbrella,” he said.
POSSIBILITY VERSUS FUTILITY
Is hunger something than can be conquered?
“I am not sure that it isn’t currently solved,” said New Directions’ Jenkins. “There are plenty of people out there providing food. As the holidays come up, there is always a huge Christmas Dinner done by the Red Cross. With all of the activities of this community, I would just be surprised if people are going hungry.”
Helping Hand’s Shuppy says she doesn’t think there is a solution: “I don’t know how biblical you are, but the poor and the hungry are always going to be with us. We truly believe that. Any one of us could end up in the situation at any particular time in our lives where we might need help from someone.”
Walker of the Lowcountry Food Bank said that the statistics on who they are serving and the scope of need they see on the Grand Strand can seem overwhelming.
“The idea we hope everyone holds on to is that the capacity to help is in all of us,” she said. You can donate funds, organize or contribute to a food drive, you can donate your time, and you can be an advocate for the people in your community who struggle with hunger. All of those actions add up to a positive change in the life of a child, a senior, a family who needs your help.”
WAVE 104.1’s Mann says you have to be a Grinch if you refuse to help feed the hungry: “At the end of the day, anybody who can stand there and look you in the eye and give you a legitimate reason why you shouldn’t give food to a hungry person has no heart,” he said.