A choice: Bread or gasoline?

The costs finally became too much for Walter Tucker.

Three weeks ago, he swallowed his pride and took a place in the soup kitchen line at Our Lady of Mercy Church on Charleston's East Side so he could extend his already stretched food dollar with a free meal.

Prices are up so much that many people are forced to make a choice, "either a gallon of gas or a loaf of bread," he says.

"It was hard to come to a soup kitchen," Tucker says. "You feel a little hesitant at first, like you may be seen as a bum." But a choice has to be made, he says. "Come in to get something to eat, or don't eat."

Sister Pat Keating, who directs this Sisters of Charity soup kitchen on America Street, says the soup kitchen normally feeds fewer than 100 for lunch at the beginning of the month when people tend to have more money on hand. Now, she says, Our Lady of Mercy often finds 150 or more in the food line.

"They're running out of money because food is expensive. We're seeing people we have not seen before."

The same is true at soup kitchens and food pantries across the Lowcountry, the state and the nation as the triple whammy of a faltering economy, skyrocketing gas prices and soaring food costs push more people into hunger.

Oil drives the food crisis

These days, everything seems to cost more, a trend driven largely by the dramatic rise in the price of fuel. Oil approached $119 a barrel late last week, yet another record.

Oil costs for agriculture and transportation, and some other factors, especially ethanol production from corn that otherwise would be used for food, are the driving forces that have pushed food prices sky high. So high that many parts of the world now face what the United Nations World Food Programme calls a "silent tsunami" of hunger that is threatening to provoke the biggest global food crisis since World War II.

And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon went a step further, saying Friday that rising food prices have already prompted a global crisis.

Critical food staples, such as rice and other grains, are up by as much as 40 percent in parts of the world. That, in turn, means beef and poultry prices are rising because cows and chickens feed on grain. Rice supplies have become so tight that the nation's two biggest warehouse retail chains, Sam's Club and Costco, have put some limits on how much rice customers can buy at one time.

Food prices rose 4.9 percent in 2007, the biggest increase since 1990, which saw a 5.3 percent hike, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the Lowcountry, operators of food pantries, soup kitchens and distribution centers say the demand for food has spiked dramatically since the beginning of the year. At the same time, they say, their expenses have jumped, for food and for the fuel they have to buy to pick up and deliver the food.

East Cooper Community Outreach, which operates a food pantry, reports dramatic increases in people coming in for help — 73 percent — during the first three months of 2008, compared with the same period last year.

A single mother strapped with health-care debt, struggling with increased gas costs and relying on disability payments from the government visited the outreach's food pantry for the first time last week. She was one of many new clients.

"I don't want to depend on others," she says, declining to give her name. "I never thought of myself as someone who would need to use a food bank. It's just gotten to a point where I can't do it anymore."

The pinch comes just as the giving season is slowing down. Summer is the dry period for food charities, administrators say. Donations are fewer, energy costs are higher and need is greater. And many transient poor come to the Charleston area during the warmer months, adding to demand.

Donations are highest in November and December because of the holidays and giving spirit, says outreach office manager Linda Grausso. The group's Christmas food drive typically results in a supply of goods so large that it lasts for six months of the subsequent year, she says. This year, it was gone by March.

Linda Blanchard, food rescue coordinator for the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter, says higher prices mean food stamps buy less and less, and often don't see families through a full month. Increasingly, people rely on pantries and soup kitchens to get them through a lean month's end, she says.

Blanchard drives the agency's truck Monday through Friday from grocery store to grocery store, restaurant to restaurant, picking up food donations that range from frozen meats to fresh produce to canned goods.

Last year's Christmas donations were down by half, Blanchard says, and that's made her collection job more urgent than ever, urgent just as gas prices are putting a bigger dent in the budget. She's trying to reduce the number of food runs she makes by visiting several donors at once.

The hunger gap widens

At the Lowcountry Food Bank in North Charleston, Amy Kosar, food solicitor, says donations are beginning to decline. And certain items now are too expensive to buy, rice in particular.

In January, rice cost the Food Bank 23 cents a pound. Three months later, the price was 40 cents a pound, a 74 percent increase. Now the food bank is seeking cheaper alternatives, such as potatoes, she says.

The Food Bank serves 154,000 people in 10 coastal counties in South Carolina. In 2007 it distributed 9.3 million pounds of food. The organization estimates another 100,000 people need but don't use its services. About 40 percent of Food Bank clients have at least one working adult in their household, Kosar says.

And now middle-class families are part of the mix, she says. Forced to choose between necessities such as medicine, food, gas and childcare, they are increasing the demand for free or subsidized food.

"It's tragic, it really is," Kosar says. "That's not a decision that we should have to make."

Executive Director Jermaine Husser says food donations from grocery stores are up, but that's a mixed blessing. They would rather give cash donations because dollars can be maximized by the agency, used to procure disproportionately large quantities of food. But a can of beans is a can of beans. And that's what Husser is relying on these days.

Local grocery stores are moving less food because of the price inflation. As a result they have more to give away, Husser says.

Collecting it, though, presents its own cost burden.

Fuel costs are up 57 percent since last year, Husser says. Transportation represents about 22 percent of the Food Bank's budget.

Tammy Lanier, customer service manager with the Food Lion on Charleston's Upper King Street, says her store lately has been providing atypical foods to local soup kitchens. "Our sales have dropped and people aren't spending like normal," she says. The result is that meats and deli products, cakes and certain breads are selling less. And since the store is stocked based on last year's sales, soup kitchens have been getting "a steak or two," she says.

The elderly on fixed incomes are among Food Lion's customers who are struggling more recently, Lanier says.

Ross Fraser, media relations manager for America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based umbrella organization for 200 independent food banks, says the pain is distributed across the nation. "What we're hearing," he says, "is that new faces are showing up" at food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries all over.

Demand is up 20 percent in most places, and 30 percent to 40 percent in some places, he says.

Frank Bohannon, 56, gets philosophical as he sips hot soup during lunch last week at Our Lady of Mercy's soup kitchen. He says this country has gotten so used to having plenty of food that we often waste it and don't see those who are hungry.

"I've been fascinated how people complain about the price of gasoline when a gallon of milk is higher."