Editor’s note: Due to the COVID-19 crisis, Harvest Hope reported that food insecurity needs tripled in March, a crisis not seen since the 2015 historic flood. Harvest Hope is in desperate need of food and monetary donations in order to continue to serve the public. And because hours are changing weekly, dictated by volunteers, staff, and food supply, people needing food should call first.
The United States Department of Agriculture reports that 12.3 percent of American households remain food insecure, “meaning that 1 in 8 households in the United States had difficulty at some time during the year in providing enough food for all their members.”
Harvest Hope Food Bank is headquartered in Columbia with Pee Dee and Greater Greenville sites as well. An average of 78 percent of its clients ponder the decision, “Do I spend money on food or utilities today?” Around 75 percent must choose between food and reliable transportation. And 71 percent are stressed about whether they can budget for medications and medical care while also feeding themselves and their families.
“Most people think of the holiday season in November and December as a time of giving,” says Wendy Broderick, CEO at Harvest Hope’s headquarters. “That time of the year is when most people tend to make a donation to their charity of choice. While this is wonderful and we love the season of giving, the reality is we’re fighting hunger all year. It doesn’t matter what the season or time of the year is, we still have people waiting outside our building at 5 a.m. to ensure they receive a spot in line at our emergency food pantry to feed their family that day.” The pantry, provided only at the Columbia and Greater Greenville facilities, opens at 9 a.m.
Food insecurity often affects people who never considered they would be forced to ask for help. Harvest Hope describes it this way: “The face of poverty and hunger is likely the face of your next door neighbor or someone equally as close to you. They may be someone in your family — an aunt or uncle, someone living on a fixed income who struggles daily to put food on their table. Many are too proud to admit that after a life of hard work they find themselves in need of help from others. They starve in silence.”
“Sheila,” 22 years old, explains that she began to seek help from Harvest Hope in 2018 when she realized that she was running out of money between paychecks and had no additional funds to purchase food. She visits the food bank about six times annually. Had she not had Harvest Hope to rely on, she says, “I would have to borrow here and there and get help from other people. I think this is a great program. It’s always here when I need help, and I really appreciate the assistance.”
“My circumstances would be terrible without the help of Harvest Hope Food Bank,” says “Maria,” 55. “I first came in 2016, and I come a few times a year when I need help. It’s so important to me and helps out a lot.”
Harvest Hope serves 20 counties in South Carolina. The numbers for its most recent fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, are as follows: 32,688,643 pounds of food distributed; 26,780,157 meals distributed; 686,744 families served; and, 1,633,064 individuals served.
Wendy points out that the latest figures reflect an increase, adding, “As one of our generous donors once said, ‘We are all one life circumstance away from needing this food bank.’ One lost job, one medical emergency, and we could need Harvest Hope’s services as well. We like to think we’re offering more than a buggy of food — we give a token of hope to someone in need.”
The organization could not function without reliable partnerships with 439 member nonprofit agencies. In fact, because of partnerships, Harvest Hope is able to accomplish its stated mission: “To provide for the needs of hungry people by gathering and sharing quality food with dignity, compassion, and education.”
Harvest Hope was founded in 1981 when Columbia’s business leaders and the faith community came together to determine how best to provide food, comfort, and hope to hungry individuals and families in the Midlands, the Pee Dee, and Greater Greenville regions of South Carolina.
Donations and volunteerism are imperative to keep Harvest Hope viable. “We are always in need of people and organizations to hold food drives, for folks to come and volunteer, and for people to make monetary donations to help us continue our mission,” says Wendy.
Currently, around 160 volunteers assist the organization. Often, that number increases when individuals, families, homeschool groups, civic organizations, and more take a tour of the Harvest Hope Food Bank on Shop Road or at the Pee Dee and Greater Greenville sites to truly understand need. Tours are free to anyone in the community; reservations are required.
Wendy says that about 150 tours are given annually across all three branches of Harvest Hope. “We would hope the interest would continue to increase. We do know that people always leave learning more about the food bank than they did when they walked in.”
The most common comments include:
- “I had no idea you all did all of this. I thought it was just a food pantry.”
- “I didn’t know you served that many counties.”
- “This place is really a large logistics company that helps feed people in need.”
- “You really do need a lot of food.”
Main ongoing donation needs include nonperishable foods; baby supplies, such as diapers, wipes, formula, foods (but no jars); hygiene supplies, such as soap, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, and conditioner; feminine hygiene products; adult diapers; paper products, including paper towels, toilet paper, napkins; and cleaning supplies.
Harvest Hope is frequently asked whether meat that comes from hunting can be donated. As long as it is processed through one of Harvest Hope’s list of approved processors, harvested meat may be donated.
Volunteer opportunities are many and varied to include all ages and abilities. “We have volunteer opportunities in our Emergency Food Pantry as a shopper or a sorter,” Wendy says. “Shoppers fill the carts for the clients and sorters inspect the produce. We also have volunteer opportunities in our Product Rescue location. Volunteers sort through food that is donated from food drives and check for dates and damages and sort them into categories.”
Volunteers can also come in as groups to work on various projects, such as bagging canned goods, pasta, or snacks. A large group can help pack boxes for their Mobile Food Pantry. They offer Saturday packing days once a month to pack boxes for low-income seniors and have around 80 to 90 volunteers for those events. They also have a few other opportunities to help at food drives, stuffing envelopes, and manning tables at fairs.
Wendy adds that some facts about Harvest Hope may surprise individuals who are not involved, including the following:
• Harvest Hope is one of very few food banks in the country that still operates an emergency food pantry. Most food banks have gone to direct distribution to their agency partners to be the “boots on the ground.”
• Its trucks on the road are actually driving a route to various retail grocery store partners to pick up donated food. Only one of its trucks actually delivers food.
• Almost all of its food comes from donations from big box stores and grocery stores.
• It reuses 4,000 plastic grocery bags a day to sort and bag food items. You are encouraged to donate your plastic bags.
• Its volunteers save Harvest Hope more than $1 million annually in overhead costs.
Interested individuals and groups can host a food drive, which is a concentrated effort to collect nonperishable food in a certain time period. Also, anyone can sponsor or host a Harvest Hope event. Harvest Hope administrators help organize and provide materials, supplies, and other items.
Employment at Harvest Hope is more than just a job for the 76 employees, 43 of whom are in the Columbia office. “Knowing that you played a role in a family having food on their table at the end of the day makes it worth it. Knowing a child is going to bed with a full stomach for the first time all week keeps us going,” says Wendy.
She recognizes, however, that involvement in Harvest Hope is fraught with highs and lows. “We rely on the public and our partners to run our food bank and continue our mission, so we are always in need of donations of various sorts. And although we are making a dent in ending hunger, we still have a long way to go. There are still hungry people in our communities.”