In grocery-store parlance, it's called "shrink" -- things like bread, produce and deli meat that won't sell because they are blemished or too close to expiring.

Now, 15 Charleston-area Piggly Wiggly stores are donating their shrink to homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

Sue Hanshaw, CEO of Tricounty Family Ministries in North Charleston, calls it "rescued food," in the sense that it would have been thrown away otherwise.

"This has been a tremendous help for us," Hanshaw said. Her ministry recently began picking up perishable food items from 10 Piggly Wiggly stores. "That's a huge influx," she said.

Tricounty, which provided almost 335,000 meals to the hungry last year, already receives donations from other grocery stores, including Food Lion, Costco and Earth Fare, but those donations have withered during the recession.

The ministry received about 250,000 pounds of food donations in 2009, Hanshaw said, down 7 percent from the previous year. Tricounty volunteer and board member Clark Hanger, whom Hanshaw described as her "numbers guy," said the ministry received over 1,200 pounds in April from a single Piggly Wiggly store near the Citadel Mall.

Piggly Wiggly already was donating canned foods and other nonperishables to area food banks, but over the past couple of months, some of the stores began offering their about-to-perish items to Tricounty. Now, thanks in part to a partnership with Charleston Chefs Feed the Need, other Piggly Wiggly stores are donating to East Cooper Meals on Wheels, Crisis Ministries and Neighborhood House.

Charleston Grill General Manager Mickey Bakst started Feed the Need in 2009 with the idea of getting area restaurateurs to help fill meal gaps at these nonprofits. He said he sees Piggly Wiggly's involvement as an extension of a moral principle.

"It's really about corporate entities becoming corporate citizens," Bakst said. "I think it's all of our jobs, when we have the ability, to do what we can."

Early in the planning, Bakst had lunch with John Owens, assistant vice president of business development for Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. Bakst knew hunger-relief organizations like Hanshaw's were in need, and Owens knew his company had good food going to waste.

"Take a bell pepper or a cucumber: It doesn't take much to get a mark on it, and then you can't sell it at retail," Owens said. "There's a lot of it that was getting thrown away, and we partnered with these organizations to get a better use from the product."

At Tricounty Family Ministries, donations go to feed about 350 people three times a week. And it's not just the homeless showing up for meals, said Hanshaw. It's the working poor. "It's the grandmother that sits next to you in church on Sunday, and she's coming because it's the first time in her life that she needs food," Hanshaw said.