Volunteer Chad Herdick unloads a bushel of collard greens to volunteer Pat Herdic as clients wait for food at Camp United Methodist Church on Nov. 16, 2019. The Food Pantry operates out of Camp United Methodist Church under the direction of South Brunswick Interchurch Council and is managed by pantry director Mary Pritchard. [Melissa Sue Gerrits/For Carolina Public Press]

The region around Brunswick County is rich in sun-soaked beaches and tourism – and poverty.

One in seven people lived in poverty and in danger of hunger as they worried about where their next meals would come from in the coastal North Carolina county last year.

In neighboring Columbus County, about one in four people lived in poverty, and one in five is deemed “food insecure.”

Assistance agencies and food pantries are trying to help, but a lack of sustainable, decent-paying jobs keeps them very busy.

Fall and winter hunger in Brunswick County

Mary Pritchard coordinates the South Brunswick Inter-Church Council food pantry, based at Camp United Methodist Church in Shallotte.

“In this particular community, we have a tremendous change in the three summer months where our population in this county triples because that’s when the visitors come,” Pritchard said. “That’s when the jobs are here.”

The county’s population swells from about 140,000 to 450,000 each summer. But now it’s the offseason, and the food pantries are busy, with many people potentially facing hunger.

Winter is the busiest time of the year for the Saturday food pantry at Camp United, Pritchard said.

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It’s busy at Brunswick Family Assistance, too.

“We see … a lot of people who are working either those part-time, minimum wage jobs or a lot of seasonal jobs that they make great money (with) in the summer, when all of the tourists are here for the beaches, but in the winter, you know, those kind of start to dwindle, and their income goes away with it,” said Stephanie Bowen, executive director of Brunswick Family Assistance.

“In the winter, people really struggle here.”

The reasons for hunger this time of year vary, according to social workers and volunteer advocates across the county, but they seem to agree on one thing: A lack of year-round, sustainable, above-minimum-wage employment sends people of all ages their way.

Then came the storms

Hurricanes over the last few years have only made the problem of hunger worse.

Sixty percent of the children in Brunswick County’s 19 schools were receiving free or reduced-price lunch at the beginning of the 2018 school year. After Hurricane Florence, 65 percent were eligible. Then Hurricane Michael came, then Dorian.

Now, every student in every grade at every school has the option of free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunch for the next four years under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s community eligibility provision. The provision opens the door to free meals for the nation’s highest poverty schools.

Residents in Brunswick County have a median income of more than $51,000 a year, according to records of the U.S. Census Bureau. But that means about half of the county makes less than that, sometimes much less.

More than a third of the county’s workers took home a paycheck of less than $500 a week in 2018, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. That’s below the poverty level for a family of four.

“We see it all the time: Folks who work the cleaning jobs down at the beaches, cleaning the rental properties, a lot of people who work the restaurants, their hours get cut down to barely nothing in the winter,” Bowen said.

“And trying to find another job during the winter is difficult, as well, so what we’ve done is we’ve partnered with (the state program) NCWorks, and they send us a list of job openings every week before it gets out to the general public so we’re able to advertise that to our clients” and let them have first dibs.

“We keep a job board here in our front lobby with all of the job listings,” Bowen said.

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Brunswick Family Assistance has offices in Shallotte and Leland. Bowen says the agency tries to make its services as mobile as possible in the 1,050-square-mile county.

“There’s a lot of food deserts, which is basically where there’s long stretches of land that there is just not an adequate access to food, water and resources,” Bowen said.

“We see a lot of folks coming in using our food pantries and trying to supplement what they’re able to do on their own.”

The agency is the sole provider of federal commodities through the Emergency Food Assistance Program. Brunswick Family Assistance distributes the staples four times a year.

“We start at 4 o’clock in the morning on distribution day and by 10:30 or 11 o’clock, we’ve served anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 people,” Bowen said.

This year, the agency has partnered with local high schools, Kiwanis Clubs and a literacy council to offer free basic financial literacy and job skills training at locations throughout the county. Child care and transportation are provided.

Brunswick Community College has also stepped up to offer aid with the Brunswick Guarantee. Through the guarantee program, started in 2017, the college waives tuition and other fees for qualifying Brunswick County high school graduates who enroll in a curriculum program, maintain a 2.0 grade point average and complete at least 67% of attempted credit hours.

Among other fields of study, the school offers job skills and workforce development training.

Robert Strickland mops floors at Ed’s Grill in downtown Whiteville on Wednesday. Strickland, who works for the health department, helps at the grill on occasion. Many restaurants were flooded and closed for a period of time after recovering from hurricane Florence. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

Columbus County and hunger

Columbus County ranked 97th among North Carolina’s 100 counties in state health rankings for length of life this year. That’s an improvement from dead last in 2017.

Its teen pregnancy rate, at 49.9% in 2018 was down from 61% in 2014. Its poverty rate has also dropped slightly, but advocates say there is a lot more work left to do.

“Columbus County is one of the poorest counties in the state,” said Helen Miller Best, director of Lifesavers Outreach Services Inc. in Whiteville.

“A lot of the people in the area where we are are on disability. … We have a lot of seniors, but we have a lot of younger single parents as well that we distribute to.”

A lack of good jobs plays a role in this community, too.

A great many are unemployed, she said. At 5.6% – up from an average of 5% in 2018, Columbus County has one of the state’s highest unemployment rates.

The number of clients at the Lifesavers food pantry continues to steadily climb, especially after another nearby pantry recently closed.

“We serve maybe 120-200 people a week,” Best said. “I’ve never seen so many people with that mentality, the poverty mentality.”

Best moved to the area from South Florida almost five years ago. She’s tried to change the mindset of the people the agency serves, she says, but it hasn’t been easy.

“I can’t ever see them coming out of that cycle (of poverty) unless they do something to get them out of that mentality,” she said. They have to want to change, she added.

Founder of Community CPR Wallyce Todd, right, leads an organizational meeting with volunteers on Wednesday at CPR in Whiteville. CPR provides services to all of Columbus County. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

Poverty, repeated storms, add up to hunger

Columbus County has 954 square miles, most of them rural.

“In our rural community, the systemic issues of poverty have a multipronged impact that elevates the reality of food scarcity,” said Wallyce Todd, founder and executive director of Community CPR (Connecting People and Resources), a disaster relief organization that provides emergency assistance, including help with food.

Todd started the organization after Hurricane Matthew devastated the region in 2016. Florence packed another wallop two years later.

The hurricane damaged St. Paul AME Zion Church in Bolton, where volunteers were distributing food every Friday. Since Florence, the volunteers have been forced to distribute food under tents in the parking lot while repairs were underway.

The tents were donated by a former client, who now volunteers at the pantry.

The pantry started off as a way to “take care of the members of the church,” said St. Paul’s pastor, the Rev. Thomas Williams Sr. It’s grown exponentially since then.

“We were just told last week that by the end of the year, we will have served over a million pounds of food,” Williams said.

And even though the church was damaged in Florence, the pantry volunteers packed up seven trailers with more than 35,000 pounds of food to distribute to people in desperate need in Fair Bluff after last year’s storm.

The repairs to the church were expected to be done before this month.

A volunteer brings frozen turkeys to a client at Camp United Methodist Church through the food pantry on Saturday. Dozens of families and individuals were served with turkey, eggs and collards in addition to their regular groceries on the occasion of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

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