BRACK:  South Carolina is still hungry

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |   Summer’s bounty of everything from juicy red tomatoes to eggplants, squashes and corn fill farm stands and grocery stores across the state.  At this time of year, you’ve never seen so much good fresh food.

But its availability belies a cold, hard fact:  South Carolina is hungry despite decades of food assistance programs.  But without them, things would be way, way worse.

Ninety-two-year-old Thelma McKay Dudley of Darlington remembers growing up hungry in the Depression as her family moved from one sharecropper cabin to another, year after year.

“We grew up mostly on fatback and grits,” she said this week.  “Sometimes we had an egg.”  There were always biscuits, but if the flour ran out, she, two sisters and parents would eat lace cornbread.  A savior in her home, just as in millions of rural households across the South, was the family garden.

Thelma “Miz McKay” Dudley

“Mama would can stuff like tomatoes and field peas,” Mrs. Dudley said, adding that the home-canned produce would generally get them through the winter.  “When I was 5 years old, we hadn’t been able to save anything so we lived off of dried field peas.”

Fast forward to the late 1960s and the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson.  In 1968, then U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings toured South Carolina and found people all over living in constant hunger.  They had diseases like pellagra, scurvy and rickets that came from a bland diet filled with too much starch, too little protein.

“They had diseases that were unknown in the encyclopedia,” Hollings recalled this week.

What he saw spurred him to research and write a book, “The Case Against Hunger: A Demand for a National Policy.”  It challenged America to make confronting hunger a national priority for “immediate emergency action.”

“Too many of us haven’t realized that we are a part of the problem and it is far more comfortable to blame someone else, especially those who are the victims or the political opposition,” Hollings wrote.  “This crisis of hunger is not a question of social welfare but of national development.”

Hollings 

Hunger, he said, sapped the national strength.  It kept babies from maturing to their full potential.  It drained people from having “energy levels high enough to make a contribution to society rather than only taking from society.”

By 1975, Hollings was among leaders of Congress to pass the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, feeding program that still serves as a developmental lifeline for hundreds of thousands of children to get enough protein and vitamins to be born with a chance to succeed.

Sadly, hunger still exists here.  More than 800,000 South Carolinians – white and black – are on food stamps.  About the same number is considered “food insecure,” a new, politically-correct term for hunger that essentially means people without consistent access to nutritious food.   This year, state records show 445,125 students of the more than 700,000 in the state’s public schools qualified for free or reduced school feeding programs.  For some kids, school breakfasts and lunches are the only real food they get daily, making summers extra tough.

Hunger still exists because poverty still exists.  More than half of the people helped by the Lowcountry Food Bank, for example, live in households with annual incomes of less than $10,000, said Kathryn Douglas, chief development officer of the program.

“The economic recovery has not reached everyone and many families, including seniors, continue to struggle to meet their basic needs,” she said.  “Rising food prices and falling or stagnant incomes due to underemployment, seasonal employment or low-wage jobs have put pressure on already-strained food budgets.”

So what’s the answer?  It certainly isn’t to cut assistance programs like food stamps or WIC as is being bandied about by the Trump Administration.  These safety net programs must keep getting funding to ensure, as Hollings said almost 50 years ago, that Americans have the fuel to be productive and contributing members of society.

“Charities cannot sufficiently fill the gaps created by the erosion of these government programs,” Douglas noted.  “The budget of the largest food charity is a mere fraction of the federal response to food insecurity. Only the federal government has the capacity to solve an issue of hunger’s magnitude.”

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