More Horry, Georgetown children battling hunger

The number of children going hungry in the United States is on the rise, with more than 1 out of 5 children living in a household where they don’t always know where they will find their next meal, and the problem affects a number of children in Horry and Georgetown counties, according a national hunger relief group’s study.

South Carolina ranks 12th in the country for child food insecurity, according to Map the Meal Gap 2012, a study done by Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization. According to the study, 288,640 children in 2010 lived in food insecure households in the state. That same year, there were 48,590 food insecure children in the 1st Congressional District, which then included parts of Charleston, Dorchester, Berkeley and Georgetown counties and all of Horry County.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 16.7 million children under 18 can’t be sure where they will get a next meal, and their lack of access to nutritious food lowers their chances for a healthy life.

In the Horry and Georgetown county areas, schools, agencies, churches and organizations regularly collect, package and distribute food to thousands of area schoolchildren who otherwise would go hungry. Organizers say the numbers they serve continue to grow, sometimes outpacing the amount of aid they can provide.

“We send 2,538 backpacks every week to 24 schools, so we know there are that many [hungry children] at least,” said Barb Mains, founder of Help 4 Kids’ Backpack Buddies program, which provides packages of nonperishable food items to the schools, and teachers send them home discreetly with students so they have food for the weekend. “We started in 2004 with 387 [backpacks], and we’re doing 200 more now than we did last year.”

Mains founded Help 4 Kids in 1989 to help children in need, who she said can be found in every pocket of the county. She said she goes out with other volunteers in vans on weekends, to distribute items such as school supplies, clothing and coats, trying to meet whatever need there might be.

Mains said there are many families affected by lay offs from seasonal work at this time of year, and she knows several families who either are homeless, camping out or living in vans. Some also stay with each other, she said, citing a family who lost their home and moved in with another family; the four-room house they share now holds four adults and nine children.

“I just wish people would care more about the poor children,” Mains said. “I think it’s hard for people to believe there are that many out there.”

Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit group, says childhood hunger can lead to problems such as a diminished capacity for learning; increased illness and fatigue; and a predisposition to behavioral difficulties, such as aggressive behavior and a greater need for mental health services.

A study from the National Cancer Institute that tracked children from birth to age 21 found that even one experience of hunger can have lasting effects that include not just the lack of nutrition, but also the psychological stress of not being able to afford a consistent and high-quality source of food.

The well-being of the nation’s children eventually affects everyone, according to the Kid Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Out of 50 states, it ranked South Carolina 43 in overall child well-being, 34 in economic well-being, 40 in education, 40 in health and 43 in family and community.

In a 2011 state ranking, the data book put South Carolina 45th for children in poverty, at 28 percent. Numbers from 2009 showed that 25.5 percent of children up to 18 years old in Horry County lived in households with incomes below the poverty level, and in Georgetown County, that number was 33.6 percent.

In Horry County Schools, 63.2 percent of students receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch at school, slightly less than the 63.9 percent reported last year, according to information from the district. Jan Knox, food service director for the Georgetown County School District, said 64 percent of students there are eligible for free and reduced meals, although everyone who is eligible may not apply. She said a cross-match agreement with the S.C. Department of Social Services provides the district with monthly updates on families that are eligible, and that helps catch some people who may not have thought to apply.

The Conway Medical Center Foundation also has been helping feed local children for the last several years. Through its Smart Snacks program, food is being provided for children at four Horry elementary schools for the children to take home for the weekend. The foundation chooses and pays for the snacks, which are packaged and delivered to school personnel by community groups.

“We have 725 children at four schools,” said Janie Smith, Healthreach coordinator, “but we had to cap [the number] because it was rising so fast. One of the schools had added 50 children, and the budget for each week had gone up $500.”

Smith said the foundation held a Capri Sun drive last week, one of the creative efforts being tried to help sustain the program as it has grown. She said Smart Snacks also is one of several programs that will benefit from a recent Conway Medical Center drive that raised $70,000.

“We’re very proud at how our employees rallied,” Smith said. “They see the need and want to help.”