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People who live in rural areas often face hunger at higher rates, in part because of the challenge of access to food.

'Stamp Out Hunger': Letter carriers collecting food for needy

As the start of the school year rolls around, researchers at Feeding America also state that children facing hunger may have more problems in school and other social situations.

'Filling Station': District 5 program feeding hungry kids on weekends

Food insecurity has no face and while it impacts every community in the United States, the meal gap in rural communities is astounding.

For these reasons and more, volunteers helped to distribute food to more than 300 families in June through HOPE (Helping Other People Eat) Together.

When hard times hit, like their name states, volunteers want to offer hope by helping their neighbors and ensure basic needs are met in their community.

The OCAB Neeses Neighborhood Center was bustling with people from as far as Aiken County on that hot summer day.

“We never turn anyone away,” said Denitra Bovian, community care and engagement director for non-profit group Pine Hill Health Network.

Armed with eight adult and two youth volunteers, the new food distribution initiative began in February and is set up like an outdoor market with people shopping for food and household items.

“There is presently one grocery store serving the western Orangeburg County area which according to the last census has a population of over 24,000 people,” Bovian said. “This is the Piggly Wiggly located in Neeses.”

The people of western Orangeburg County deserve better, Bovain said.

“It is inconceivable that in the year 2019 to have only one grocery store for an entire region that is home to over 24,000 South Carolinians,” she said. “This is beyond outrageous -- it is a travesty.”

According to the 2010 census, the median income for the town was $20,521.

The Orangeburg native said it is deeply disheartening knowing there is a severe lack of accessibility to food in the place where she calls home.

Chief Michelle Mitchum founded HOPE Together, and her team is tasked with the “mission” of addressing the issue of food insecurity and accessibility.

“This is not only a local problem, it’s a global problem,” Mitchum said.

To date, HOPE Together has coordinated two community distributions providing food and household items to 563 individuals and 227 households as well as registering five new voters.

Their mission is to reverse generational poverty and rejuvenate western Orangeburg County through developing programs that create and balance food security, access to healthcare, educational success, create jobs, preserve history, and celebrate the rich heritages represented in the area.

The turnout for just the two distributions exceeded what Mitchum said she was expecting.

“I knew there was a great need, but the need is so much greater. Due to the food insecurities, our agency also established a health network to address health issues directly related to lack of nutritious food.”

In addition to Orangeburg. other counties that HOPE Together has served are Allendale, Bamberg, Calhoun and Richland.

There is no income verification in order to receive assistance -- just a household date form and the honor system.

Harvest Hope and the United Methodist Church through their "Elder Baskets" have been a line of critical support for the agency, which seeks to expand its mission to the most economically fragile communities.

During the June distribution, recipients left with cans of soup, vegetables, fruit, laundry detergent, paper towels and toilet paper among other items.

Bovain said Al Jenkins, regional director for Sen. Tim Scott, and state Rep. Jerry Govan are supporters of HOPE Together and its affiliates.

“This effort by Mitchum, her staff and volunteers helps address a critical need in the area, that is isolated and also is adjacent to other counties that are in this food dessert,” Govan said.

Govan said it is “absolutely essential” for all levels of government to collaborate with initiatives of this sort.

“We (elected officials) have an obligation to serve all the people,” he said. “Working with Mr. Jenkins and Sen. Scott’s staff on this initiative has been a pleasure. It’s a clear example of how government should function. You’ve been elected to represent the people, and from time to time, you have to work with others to get the job done and meet the need.”

“The area is in need of hope,” Mitchum said.

“We’re not in the Opportunity Zone, we’re not in the Hope Zone or Promise Zone,” Mitchum said. “Western Orangeburg has been missed, and we’re cut off from everything going on the city in terms of stores and other resources.”

Mitchum and Bovain said people wouldn’t come to food distributions if they didn’t really need the help.

They noted that when you help someone feed their family and make it to another day, it touches your heart.

The tentative date for the next quarterly food and household supply distribution is Sept. 28.

For more information about HOPE or to partner with them, call 803-662-3377 or email info@phnn.org. For more information about Pine Health Network, visit phhn.org.

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