Remember last year, when we were encouraging everyone we knew to click "like" on Wal-Mart's food bank contest so that Charleston could have a shot at a million dollars?

Charleston had enough social media support to wind up as one of the $100,000 winners of that contest, and the Lowcountry Food Bank was the designated recipient.

Of course, that didn't stop the need.

In fact the number of requests for emergency food assistance increased 5 percent this year, according to the Hunger and Homelessness Survey released Thursday by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The Wal-Mart giveaway was valuable from the tangible benefits ($100,000 for the food bank) and the intangible ones, said Ilze Astad, the food bank's executive director of operations.

"Just to be able to tell our story and to tell more folks that yes there is hunger right here in our community and not some land far, far away, it's definitely priceless," Astad said.

But as the mayors conference report and the food bank's own research show, the need continues to grow.

Bridging the gap

"At the food bank, we are doing everything we can to make sure we are keeping up with the demand," Astad said.

That includes new initiatives and programs that go beyond supplying food to the shelters and agencies, such as the School Pantry Program, which provides needy families with a box of food once a month, or the Benefit Bank.

The latter is an online computer program that allows a professional to fill out a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program application (what used to be called food stamps) in conjunction with an interview process with a client.

The benefit of the Benefit Bank is its more conversational, interview-style application process, Astad said. It's also faster, so it breaks down potential barriers to assistance. The result? More applicants are able to receive benefits.

Future challenge

The food bank does its own hunger study every four years, Astad said. The most recent one, from 2010, contains some pretty sobering statistics of its own: More than 54 percent of the food bank's clients choose between food and utilities; more than 39 percent chose between food and medicine.

The mayors report said that the need is only expected to increase, because of the slow economic recovery. But the report also indicates that Charleston's challenge for 2012 (and other cities too) is to keep up with the expected increased demand while funding sources dwindle.

That's a message Astad and her staff know all too well. "The crisis is not over yet," she said.

But she is quick to add that there is tremendous community support for the food bank and its partner agencies in their mission. "We're really using a comprehensive approach and going beyond food assistance."

By attacking hunger and homelessness, local agencies hope to provide something even more valuable in the long term: stability.