Volunteers and clients organize the distribution of food at the food pantry operated on Saturdays from 10:00am to noon at Camp United Methodist Church in Shallotte, NC on Nov. 16, 2019. Mary Pritchard, food pantry director, notes diabetes as the number one killer in Brunswick county with heart disease as the second largest cause of death. "These are lifestyle, food, and health issues", said Pritchard. "Very low on the list is the opioid crisis for cause of death. Though it needs attention, it's time to make changes to the health of our residents. It's not about eating high priced organic, everyone can participate in this kind of lifestyle", said Pritchard of the whole wheats, grains, and vegetables compiled for the pantry. [Melissa Sue Gerrits/For Carolina Public Press]

SHALLOTTE — Cheryl Godley sat with her boyfriend inside a crowded fellowship hall one door down from the food pantry at Camp United Methodist Church on Saturday morning,  Nov. 2, as an intake worker called another number.

“No. 6.”

But it wasn’t her number.

She smiled as she chatted with the South Brunswick Inter-Church Council’s food pantry organizer, Mary Pritchard, while she waited.

This place is “great,” she said. “They help out a lot of people.”

Godley’s church is part of the coalition of congregations that takes turns each week staffing the pantry in southwestern Brunswick County, not far from the coast and the South Carolina line.

This was the first time Godley had been back to the Saturday food pantry for assistance in nearly a year, she said, but it was the offseason, and although Ryan was looking for work, he hadn’t found it yet.

“He just moved here with me and he’s trying to get a job here,” she said. “We’ve been putting in applications.”

Advocates working to provide food assistance in the county say that’s a common problem.

A lot of the work in this coastal county is seasonal. When the tourists leave, many of the jobs go with them. It was November. The offseason had already arrived.

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Marlene Mellis co-chairs the pantry operation, along with Carol Kendall, at Camp United Methodist, where the pantry is based.

“There’s not a lot of jobs,” Mellis said. “I mean, you can work at Walmart or you can work at one of the stores or whatever, but there’s not a lot of industry. So, these people clean houses, clean beach homes, clean condos and that kind of stuff, and in the winter, they have no jobs.”

The pantry is open 10 a.m.-noon every Saturday, but unlike the other 18 food pantries in Brunswick County, its clients have the option to come every week.

Joyce Orren, left, and her daughter load up the car with groceries Saturday through South Brunswick Interchurch Council’s food pantry in Shalotte. Orren said she supplements her household’s food needs with the food pantry as needed. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

The cost of a meal

“A lot of people here have jobs that are at minimum wage, and if you have a family of four, on minimum wage, you can’t really make ends meet,” Pritchard said.

The annual poverty wage for a family of four in 2018 was $25,100. More than a third of all workers in Brunswick County were bringing home an average of less than $500 a week that year, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.

“There’s a lot of things that are lower-priced in North Carolina than in other states, but food is not one of them,” said Pritchard.

The retired general manager is a transplant from Pennsylvania and longtime member of St. Brendan’s Catholic Church. As a coordinator of the Inter-Church Council’s pantry, she works with a variety of distributors to get the best offerings at the best price.

“It takes more work to work with different suppliers, but it’s worth it,” she said.

Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap estimates the average cost of a meal in Brunswick County is $3.35. The average cost of meals is cheaper in three of its four contiguous counties: New Hanover ($3.19), Columbus ($2.72) and Horry County, South Carolina ($2.89).

Pritchard is able to acquire the ingredients for meals at much lower prices with the help of partners like the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.

The food bank distributed nearly 1.7 million meals to people through its partnering food pantries in Brunswick County in 2017. Nearly 14 percent of all Brunswick County residents were considered food insecure, worrying about where their meals would come from that year.

“If you’re working a job that’s 9 to 5 Monday through Friday you can’t really access the other food pantries because that’s when they operate, so we decided to operate on Saturdays,” Pritchard said.

“We see a fair amount of people that actually have jobs, but again, like I said — they can’t make their ends meet.”

Most of the jobs in Brunswick County are in sales and the retail trade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and those jobs were averaging an income of $484 a week in 2018.

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Godley said people were hopeful about the new Hardee’s restaurant that opened up within a mile of her Shallotte home.

It helps to have something close. Brunswick County is a big county geographically.

“It’s 50 miles from end to end,” Pritchard said. “And if you don’t have money to pay for food, you probably don’t have money to drive very far and back to get food at a central food pantry, let’s say.

“As a result, most of them are church-driven food pantries that are in the county. … Most of them operate on Monday through Friday. You can come once a month.”

But the council “recognized … that people need the help more often than once a month,” she said. “We allow them to come every week if they need it, and probably 40% to 50% of the people are there every week.”

The pantry has been in operation for more than 20 years. Pritchard has volunteered there for 15 years.

“I retired and I played golf for a while and I thought, ‘Boy, there’s got to be something besides this,’” she said.

She asked her church if she could volunteer with the St. Brendan’s food pantry. Another opportunity surfaced with the council, an opportunity for Pritchard to use her management and negotiating skills to help a group of churches collectively offer something that they couldn’t offer on their own.

“My job is to coordinate all of this and to help anyone who wants to participate, participate and raising the funds to do it all,” she said. Fourteen churches kick in monetary support to keep the Saturday pantry open. Volunteers from seven churches take turns staffing the pantry each week.

Tamara Toman, who has several rare diseases that have caused her to be on disability since the 1990s, visits the food pantry at Camp United Methodist Church in Shalotte on Saturday. She says medical costs make it difficult for her to make ends meet, but the food pantry “has helped a lot.”  Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

A healthy diet

“Food pantries distribute a tremendous amount of carbs. Why? Because the price is right,” she said; that’s “what the government subsidizes.”

But in a county where diabetes is the No. 1 killer, Pritchard said she knew she had to find a way to get healthier items in the pantry. She worked with a nutritionist to help balance the diets with the food they serve.

“Government subsidizes wheat more than vegetables,” she said. So she got a supply of whole wheat pasta.

“People aren’t used to seeing that, so I say, ‘Well, OK, let me show you how to use it.’ So now we’re working with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension people to come in and have demonstrations and taste testings,” Pritchard said.

“All of this takes time, and people are leery, but we’re working with them.”

The cooking demonstrations, complete with samples for tasting and recipes for trying out, are offered at the pantry every third week of the month.

Collards against hunger

On Nov. 2, the day’s fresh-from-the-field catch was collard greens. The pantry didn’t offer recipes for cooking the collards.

This is the South, Pritchard said. Every family has its own special way of cooking collards here.

Delilah Smith was picking up food supplies for herself, her daughter, nephew and brother.

“They like collards, too,” she told the volunteers as they helped load the back of her truck with the first bags of staples.

She left with several stalk bundles of collards for her family, saying she would cook them with a bit of bacon and put them in the freezer to help them last.

Sixty-two families were served at the food pantry Saturday, a slight drop from the 76 families (nearly 300 people total) served the week before.

“We have a lot of big families, a lot of 5s (five-member households) and 10s,” Mellis said.

Volunteers Bill Fredette, 82, and Bob Chomiak load grocery bags with a variety of staples on Saturday at Camp United Methodist Church in Shallotte. Both men volunteer with St. Brendans’ Catholic Church at the pantry, which is under the direction of South Brunswick Interchurch Council. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

Storing the food

Before the pantry opened, Mellis was sweeping up leaves to keep the outside floor drain clear. The pantry’s supply rooms are housed in the basement of the downtown Shallotte church, which is next to a river.

When the river floods, the basement of the church also floods if the drain is clogged.

“That’s why we have no floor in here,” Mellis said. “The tiles came loose, and we just had to take them off.”

The pantry items are kept off the floor on shelves in small rooms designated for the supplies they hold. Canned goods are in one room. Diapers and wet wipes are in another. The pantry is small, but its impact is large, Mellis said.

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