More S.C. families going hungry, study finds

State bucks national trend in Department of Agriculture survey

COLUMBIA -- Harvest Hope Food Bank helped more families this summer than at any time in its 26-year history often giving food to more than twice as many families as it has typically, officials with the nonprofit group say.

Harvest Hope's emergency food pantry on Shop Road usually opens its doors to 75 to 90 families each day from June through September, said Denise Holland, the organization's executive director.

But that number jumped this year to at least 125 each day and often spiked to 175 or 200, Holland said.

It's just one indicator that more South Carolinians are reaching out for help to feed their families, a trend echoed in a federal study released Wednesday that showed the state ranked fourth in the nation last year for the prevalence of hunger.

Using Census Bureau data, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual hunger survey found 14.7 percent of S.C. families said they did not have enough money or resources to get food for at least some period during the year.

The S.C. rate was up 3.7 percentage points over a decade ago, the survey showed, bucking a national trend that generally has been leveling out since 1996.

Families who turn to Harvest Hope for help usually are battling unemployment and struggling with rising gas prices and expensive medication, Holland said.

Often, those receiving food stamps turn to the food bank, since the federal assistance isn't going as far at the grocery store, she said.

And the next few months could be even tougher.

"The holiday season is emotional," Holland said. "It's when, financially, many people are pushed to the limits.

"We definitely want hungry people to be fed, but it will take an entire community to do this."

Other indicators that more South Carolinians are seeking assistance to feed their families:

• Through September of this year, almost 240,000 South Carolina families were receiving food stamps, up from about 139,000 a decade ago, according to the S.C. Department of Social Services, which administers the federal program.

• In the state's public schools, during the 2001-2002 school year, about 53 percent of all lunches served to students were free, said Charles Bushee, education associate in the Office of School Food Services and Nutrition. Three years later, during the 2004-2005 school year, that number increased to 56 percent.