The first time I visited the Lowcountry Food Bank about four years ago, it was located in a warehouse at the Navy Yard in North Charleston. The nonprofit had a grimy, industrial atmosphere. It was the kind of place where you didn't linger in the parking lot on your way in. And once you got in, you might have thought you had landed on the set of On the Waterfront.
I returned to the Lowcountry Food Bank a few weeks ago and met with program directors Ilze Visocka and Margaret Grant. They took me on a tour of their new facilities on Azalea Road, the Paul Hulsey Community Food and Nutrition Center. The 65,000 sq. ft. Hulsey Center is now so attractive that the Lowcountry Food Bank now finds itself in the business of renting meeting space. Indeed, the front offices have the bustle and manner of a small PR or advertising firm.
But behind the stylish offices is the warehouse where the gritty business of distributing 14 million pounds of food to 191,000 clients in 10 Lowcountry counties who do not have enough to eat takes place. That's what the Lowcountry Food Bank did last year, and the numbers appear to be even bigger this year, Visocka told me. The ongoing economic downturn is costing people their jobs, stressing family budgets, and putting people out of their homes. People who never needed help before have been forced to look to public assistance for the first time. To meet that need, the Lowcountry Food Bank has a staff of 35 full-time employees and works with more than 360 faith-based and nonprofit agencies across coastal South Carolina. It has satellite food centers in Yemassee and Myrtle Beach.
Like a couple showing off their new house with all the special features, Visocka and Grant walked me through the facility that the Lowcountry Food Bank has occupied since 2008. There is the 26,000-cubic-foot refrigerator, capable of holding two-and-a-half truckloads of food.
Meanwhile, a new state-of-the-art kitchen is still under construction. When it is finished, the Lowcountry Food Bank will begin collaborating with Meals on Wheels and Kids Café, a program that provides hot, nutritious meals and academic assistance to needy children. The kitchen will be part of an apprenticeship program, which trains young people for the local restaurant industry. Volunteers will also be taught how to prepare up to a thousand hot meals a day that will go out to the community.
The kitchen will also allow Lowcountry Food Bank to prep and freeze fresh food that otherwise would be lost. Too much food was thrown away at the old facility. With the new kitchen, waste will be reduced to almost zero.
Right now, the Lowcountry Food Bank is still looking for funding and someone with a culinary degree to fulfill these ambitious goals. It's a learning experience for everyone. "We've never been in the restaurant business before," Visocka said.
Beyond the kitchen is the repack room, where volunteers repackage huge bags of rice and other staples into family-size containers. There is also a room where volunteers pack food for children to take home from school on Fridays so they will have something to eat over the weekend. The operation is called Backpack Buddies, and it has become one of the Lowcountry Food Bank's most effective community outreach programs.
Without volunteers, there would be no Lowcountry Food Bank. Individuals gave 25,000 volunteer hours to the nonprofit last year. A million-dollar gift from local attorney Paul Hulsey, along with many smaller donations, made it possible for the Lowcountry Food Bank to buy and renovate its new building. Other companies have donated a large refrigerator truck, a forklift, garden boxes for growing vegetables and herbs, and a rainwater recycling system.
Months ago, a South Carolina politician said that helping poor people was like feeding stray animals — it encourages them to remain poor and dependent. Charleston's answer to people without food has been this outpouring of volunteer labor, talent, and money.
That politician was scorned from coast to coast, and his career has since crashed and burned. We will probably never hear his name again. The thousands of people who make the Lowcountry Food Bank possible have received scant attention for all they have done. Yet the Lowcountry Food Bank is a testimony to the kind of city that Charleston is. Its politicians and institutions are often flawed, but its people make this old city proud.
See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.