By Mike McCombs
“Sometimes I walk in and say ‘What are we going to do?’” Aileen LeBlanc said. “But somehow, it always seems to work out.”
LeBlanc works for HELP of Beaufort, the largest volunteer organization and food pantry in Beaufort County, and it has continued to see a substantial increase in food emergencies over the same time a year ago.
That was hammered home earlier this month. On Tuesday, Jan. 12, 51 families came to HELP asking for help. That is an all-time high for a single day for the organization. Counting family members, HELP assisted 231 people that day.
“I was happy that we had it,” LeBlanc said.
It is primarily food donations from the public that stock the shelves for Help of Beaufort. Eighty percent of the food comes from donations. The rest comes from the USDA and what staff purchases at local grocery stores.
“If we don’t have it, we have to go out and buy it,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc has only been with HELP since about the time COVID-19 began to rear its head. But in that time, demand for food has increased requests for rent assistance, shelter and warm clothing and blankets for the homeless.
Help of Beaufort Executive Director Lori Opozda told The Island News back in September that the demand for emergency food had already doubled since March. That number has continued to rise.
According to LeBlanc, HELP is now seeing at least triple the numbers it was a year ago.
“It used to be, on average, we’d see seven to 12 families on one day,” LeBlanc said. “Now it’s easily more than 20 with as many as 25 to 28 families on an average day.”
Chrystie Turner, United Way of the Lowcountry’s Vice President of Community Impact, confirms what HELP of Beaufort is seeing.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, calls on United Way of the Lowcountry’s HELPLINE, which serves Beaufort and Jasper Counties, have significantly increased by an average of 347 percent,” Turner said. “In December 2020, requests for assistance on the HELPLINE increased by 381 percent compared to December 2019. Many of those who have reached out for help are middle-class families who have never requested assistance in the past but are now struggling to make ends meet.”
When it comes to food insecurity, Beaufort is far from unique.
According to the Food Research and Action Center – a nonprofit that conducts research to document the extent of hunger in America, its impact and effective solutions – as of Sept. 2020, one in 10 American families, roughly 10.5 percent to be more accurate, faces food insecurity.
If you narrow it down to families with children, that number rises to one in eight.
And the percentages get significantly higher if you’re Black, not to mention rural and in the South.
No matter how you break it up, 35 million Americans face food insecurity. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the numbers are likely to get worse before they get better.
Of course, the problem doesn’t go away when a family asks for help, either. Until things get better, families may depend on outside help.
LeBlanc said they are only supposed to help every 30 days, so volunteers try and make sure people in need of help are aware of all of the potential resources in our area.
“However, (if someone needs help),” LeBlanc said, “Nobody gets turned away.”
After the record say on Jan. 12, HELP of Beaufort took to Facebook to remind people that they needed help.
“January, February, and March are traditionally the slowest months of the year for food donations. While the hustle and bustle of the holidays have passed, people are still out of work, still in the need for food, and a roof over their heads,” read HELP’s Facebook post.
HELP of Beaufort routinely holds fundraisers – the Boston Butt sales are one example – but this year has found the organization needing more. Bu LeBlanc is quick to praise the people of Beaufort.
“When we post that we need these things, we get these things – food, dog food, diapers, warm clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, etc.,” LeBlanc said. “The people are very generous in this community. People give but we have to remind them.”
HOW TO HELP HELP OF BEAUFORT
Aside from individual donations, businesses, schools or churchs are welcome to hold a food drive for HELP. Contact HELP at 843-524-1223 or at email@example.com for assistance.
Individual donors too busy to shop can always place an online order with Walmart, Publix or any other store to be delivered to 1810 Ribaut Road in Port Royal from 9:30 to noon, Monday through Friday or make a monetary donation and specify for it to go for the pantry.
Above: HELP of Beaufort volunteers help distribute food to dozens of families each week. Photo courtesy of HELP of Beaufort.