In crisis mode

With ingredients from the Lowcounty Food Bank prepared in the tiny Cannon Street YMCA kitchen, Mellissa Scott brings dinner to the table Wednesday for children in the after-school tutoring program.

It's a truism that generosity tends to multiply when confronted with growing need, and a recent gift to the Lowcountry Food Bank seems to prove it.

Anita Zucker, a Charleston philanthropist and the widow of businessman Jerry Zucker, donated $500,000 to the food bank's Growing Forward capital campaign, the organization announced Wednesday. The gift grew to its current size after Zucker recently visited the food bank's new Azalea Drive facility, currently undergoing renovations, according to Executive Director D. Jermaine Husser. The capital campaign has now raised $4.2 million toward its $5 million dollar goal.

Zucker said part of her motivation was sparked by the current national economic downturn and the increase in basic needs throughout the area.

"This is something I am thrilled to do at these particularly difficult times," she said.

As unemployment figures rise — to 6.5 percent nationally, 7.3 percent in South Carolina — and the cost of living continues to outpace income, lines at soup kitchens are beginning to extend around the block.

At Crisis Ministries, a homeless shelter that serves five meals a day, food donations are down slightly even as the number of servings increases, according to Leigh Danley, director of community relations.

On Tuesday, Veterans Day, hundreds lined up for a lunch provided by the shelter's soup kitchen, she said. Traffic has increased to an average of about 200 a day from about 140 a day a few months ago, Danley said.

The Zucker family gift will be used to build the food bank's production kitchen, which will bear the Zucker name. There, meals will be prepared for the Kids Café program, an after-school initiative that delivers food to more than 1,500 children. With help from the Rotary Club of Charleston, which provides a van, meals are brought to area schools, the Boys and Girls Club and the Cannon Street YMCA.

Zucker said she is particularly glad to know her gift will provide direct aid to children in need.

"Seeing children go hungry is not something we want to see," she said. They need nutritious meals that help them develop healthy bodies and minds, she said.

Husser said food banks around the country have seen a 20 percent increase in demand. "Here in the Lowcountry we're seeing roughly about that, which has depleted our food stores," he said. "We're very low."

But hundreds of food drives throughout the community have prompted many to respond "in a tremendous way," he added, saying he did not think the facility would run out of food.

"Our goal is not to turn anyone away," Husser said.

In recent months, higher food prices have exacerbated problems at aid agencies. Inflation on commodities rose for 18 months straight, until September when prices eased slightly. Some economists speculate that falling oil prices, a drop in consumer spending and the widespread economic malaise are contributing to the reversal. But supermarket labels for the most part have not reflected the change.

The Lowcountry Food Bank serves 10 coastal South Carolina counties, distributing food to about 320 agencies.

More than 55,000 children go hungry in coastal South Carolina each day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The food bank reaches about 2,500 a week through its own programs such as Kids Café and Backpack Buddies, according to Miriam Coombes, development and communications manager.

It is these efforts that prompted Zucker, an honorary member of the Growing Forward campaign board, to think big. She had heard about the Kid's Café program from Trident United Way, then learned more from Husser and decided to help. A few months after the death of her husband Jerry in April, she visited the new facility in North Charleston — to be named after another financial supporter, Paul Hulsey — and announced she would give $500,000.

"Balloons started flying, we did back flips in the food bank," Husser said. "But what it means to the community is that she and her family have provided a legacy to ensure that underprivileged children are going to get a hot meal every day."

Zucker said her philanthropy is informed by the values instilled in her by her parents and in-laws, all Holocaust survivors who struggled after the war to find food, and by the fundamental Jewish imperative called "Tikkun olam" — repairing the world.

"That's definitely at the bottom of it, that's the legacy Jerry left us with," she said. "In very difficult times, I hope people will try to use their resources to the best of their abilities, use them to make a difference."