For the past two years, sponsors of the free lunches served at downtown Charleston's Crisis Ministries shelter have followed a distressing pattern.

People showing up are no longer just walking in from off the street. Instead, the hungry seem to be filling up the parking lot first.

"What we've seen is more people driving to the soup kitchen," Amy Zeigler, the ministries' director of grants and community outreach, said Monday.

The trend "tells us they may have a home and they have a job, but they are having trouble making ends meet."

Zeigler's comments reinforce the findings of a new study on the state of hunger in South Carolina, where an estimated one in five residents don't have enough money to adequately feed themselves.

Inflation, the sour economy and cuts to assistance programs were all cited for interrupting the nation's food delivery system, leaving tens of thousands at risk.

"No community in our state is anywhere close to being hunger-free," said Sue Berkowitz, director of the Columbia-based South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

The report, based on data assembled by the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, examined food hardship (defined as the "inability to afford enough to eat") for every region of the country, including by state, congressional district and for 100 metropolitan areas.

In South Carolina, the data showed:

--21.9 percent of South Carolinians were unable to afford enough food in 2011.

--The Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville "food hardship" rate was at 18.1 percent, or only slightly better than statewide.

--All six of the state's congressional districts had 19 percent or more of their residents reporting living in a state of food hardship.

Data for the report were gathered as part of a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index project, which included interviewing almost 1,000 households daily since January 2008.

Food stamp benefit allotments took a particular hit, the study said, with beneficiaries losing more than 6 percent of their purchasing power in recent months.

Zeigler said the findings mirror what she and the staff at Crisis Ministries have seen since 2009, as the economy soured significantly.

"At first, it caught us by surprise," she said of the growth of busy lunch numbers. The demand became more obvious when greater numbers of people started showing up with plastic containers to take meals home for later. The shelter serves at least 200 meals a day during lunch.

Berkowitz said the only bright spot for South Carolina is that the misery is now coming in from other parts of the nation.

"The bad news is we've always had incredibly high numbers," she said. "The good news is that the rest of the country is catching up."

Zeigler said the trend of people driving to the kitchen for a meal is something the staff has gotten used to seeing every day.

"It's not really stopping yet, either," she said.

Inflation, the sour economy and cuts to assistance programs were all cited for interrupting the nation's food delivery system, leaving tens of thousands at risk.

"No community in our state is anywhere close to being hunger-free," said Sue Berkowitz, director of the Columbia-based South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

The report, based on data assembled by the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, examined food hardship (defined as the "inability to afford enough to eat") for every region of the country, including by state, congressional district and for 100 metropolitan areas.

In South Carolina, the data showed:

--21.9 percent of South Carolinians were unable to afford enough food in 2011.

--The Charleston, North Charleston, Summerville "food hardship" rate was at 18.1 percent, or only slightly better than statewide.

--All six of the state's congressional districts had 19 percent or more of their residents reporting living in a state of food hardship.

Data for the report was gathered as part of a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index project, which included interviewing almost 1,000 households daily since January 2008. Food stamp benefit allotments took a particular hit, the study said, with beneficiaries losing more than 6 percent of their purchasing power in recent months.

Zeigler said the findings mirror what she and the staff at Crisis Ministries have seen since 2009, as the economy soured significantly.

"At first, it caught us by surprise," she said of the growth of busy lunch numbers. The demand became more obvious when greater numbers of people started showing up with plastic containers to take meals home for later. The shelter serves at least 200 meals a day during lunch.

Berkowitz said the only bright spot for South Carolina is that the misery is now coming in from other parts of the nation.

"The bad news is we've always had incredibly high numbers," she said. "The good news is that the rest of the country is catching up."

Zeigler said the trend of people driving to the kitchen for a meal is something the staff has gotten used to seeing every day.

"It's not really stopping yet, either," she said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.