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A summer lunch program returns to South Carolina's most food-insecure county

Miss Sonya, left, and Bobbie Grimes pack lunches for children at the marian Wright Edelman Public Library in Bennettsville. The free lunch program returns after a four-year hiatus brought on by Covid.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio.
Miss Sonya, left, and Bobbie Grimes pack lunches for children at the marian Wright Edelman Public Library in Bennettsville. The free lunch program returns after a four-year hiatus brought on by Covid.

On June 11, the Marian Wright Edleman (MWE) Public Library – Bennettsville’s branch of the Marlboro County Library System – started serving lunches to children and teens.

Before COVID, MWE did this in the summer, after school let out, twice a week. It was a way to supplement meals kids could otherwise get in their schools, which a stunning number of children and parents rely on.

The pandemic, as it did to so many things, stopped the library’s summer feeding program in its tracks. It was a bitter irony, given that the library’s namesake is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, whose best-known quote might be this one: “A nation that does not stand for children does not stand for anything.”

But thanks to an initiative by the South Carolina State Library and the sponsorship of the Performing Arts & Science Academy in Marion, MWE was able to resurrect the summer feeding program, Monday through Thursday, until July 24.

Somewhere in the staff offices, behind the books and DVDs at the library, is a drawing done by a small boy a few years ago, when MWE provided free lunches on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It reminds Bobbie Grimes, president of the Marlboro County Library System, why this program was so important to resurrect.

“It had a superhero on it,” Grimes said. “It said, ‘Without you, I’d starve.’”

This is not hyperbole. Marlboro County, according to data from Feeding the Carolinas food bank, had the highest rate of food insecurity in South Carolina through 2022 – 18.5%.

That’s the overall rate. The rate for children was 31.9%, meaning one child in every three in Marlboro County is not guaranteed a next meal.

According to the state Department of Social Services, 2,918 households in Marlboro County received benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in May. That’s about 500 fewer households than a year earlier, but it is still a quarter of the county’s households.

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that 22% of Marlboro County residents – one in five – lived below the poverty line between 2017 and 2022; U.S. Census data show that number to be 28.7% last year.

The county also has, month-to-month, the highest or second-highest unemployment rate in the state, according to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce – a situation worsened by high-impact closures of large employers like Mohawk Flooring, which left the county in 2022.

Even for working families, the cost of daycare in Marlboro County is often high. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that in 2023, costs for infant-and toddler-based daycare in Marlboro County demanded, on average, 15% of household income. That's the second-highest share – behind Allendale County – of income towards daycare in the state.

So every meal helps, Grimes said. Moms like Allyssia Jacobs, who brought her two small daughters to the library for Wednesday story time and a pair of grab-and-go lunches, agree.

“For them to be able to get a good meal and still be in the community,” Jacobs said, “that’s very helpful for us.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.