Ryan Vrba stuffed doubled plastic grocery bags full of sweet potatoes the size of eggplants, tied the handles together and handed them to seniors as they walked back to the Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach parking lot. Volunteers helped them load their cars with a box of non-perishables, the huge sweet potatoes and a package of meat.
The potatoes were the produce pick of the month. Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach supplement boxes are provided by the Lowcountry Food Bank with fruits, vegetables and fresh meat. The group distributes the boxes once a month. But lately, volunteers have been distributing more than twice as many of the boxes as they did before.
As the number of seniors living in Charleston, and particularly on the nearby Sea Islands, increase, so too have the number of seniors dealing with food insecurity. But many of those taking advantage of the senior food box program on Tuesday were longtime Lowcountry residents who have struggled to put together meals for the month as they age.
The program has grown from 80 participants to 202 in a single year.
"It's just grown tremendously," said Vrba, the program's administrator. "There's just so many seniors that qualify in this community. There's a lot of people in poverty on the Sea Islands."
A report from AARP showed nearly 20 percent of South Carolina adults 60 or older were living with low or very low food security. A 2015 study from the senior advocacy group showed South Carolina ranked as the third-lowest of all states for food security among adults 60 years old and older. Sixteen percent of all people in Charleston County have food insecurity, according to Our Lady of Mercy.
As the population of older people grows, community organizations have moved in to feed them. The East Cooper and Charleston chapters of Meals on Wheels have reported feeling this same pressure.
Donna Cook, executive director of Charleston Meals on Wheels, recently said there are 85 to 100 people on the waiting list at any given time. The organization has 21 routes, serving up to 30 people each.
Ralph Boyer, 64, has lived on Johns Island his whole life. For most of that time, he sustained his family with a farm. But he left farming in 2004. Now, his wife struggles with cancer but continues to teach at a local school, and he is disabled.
They live on his wife's income. Making their bills for the month is a close call.
"We don't have much left over," he said.
The box he picked up last week would help him piece together enough food for the month, he said.
People have to apply before they can begin picking up a box. The boxes handed out on Feb. 13 included Natrel, Bran Flakes, orange juice and other non-perishables.
Our Lady of Mercy serves James, Johns and Wadmalaw Islands. The senior food boxes are part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. The Food Bank provides the boxes and the Department of Social Services reviews each site.
There are two simple requirements to qualify: Applicants must be 60 or older and must meet the income threshold. Participants must live at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. A family of two, for example, would qualify for a box at or below an annual income of $24,000.
The organization also buys meat every month. An anonymous donor gives funds for fresh produce — something different each month.
One nearby low-income assisted-living facility, Johns Island Rural Housing, sends a van of residents across the street to Our Lady of Mercy every month.
Gloria Murray, the facility's resident coordinator, said the program is important because many living there have a fixed income. On average, she said her residents get about $16 worth of food stamps every month. Often, they will piece together the food in the senior boxes with whatever they can pick up at the nearest grocery store.
"It just helps them survive," Murray said.
She said the residents also use Our Lady of Mercy's other programming, such as its financial assistance classes.
For the younger people Our Lady of Mercy helps, Traci Rhoden, a marketing expert with Our Lady of Mercy, said they encourage self-sufficiency. For the older folks, the focus is more on nutrition and financial planning.
Rhoden said the program grew by about 30 people when a similar one closed across the street. But it really caught fire when the group talked to a senior quilting group.
"This is when the program really blossomed," Rhoden said.
Most of the participants said they had heard about the program through word-of-mouth.
That was true for Allan Mitchell, 88. A longtime James Island resident, he retired in 1989. Mitchell still drives and still goes to the grocery. The food boxes help him to fill in some of the gaps.
"It helps me all the way around," he said.