On a Wednesday afternoon, the line to get into the parking lot of Gloverville Pentecostal Church was backed up to the nearest intersection two streets away.
For the people in line sitting in their idling cars – some without air conditioning – the wait was worth it for the food they were receiving at a mobile food pantry set up at the church.
Pastor Eder Herrera of Gloverville Pentecostal said there is a "lot of need" in his community when it comes to hunger. That is why he first partnered with Golden Harvest Food Bank in June to provide a mobile food pantry for his community.
After seeing how many people turned up for the program, he decided to partner with Golden Harvest full time to provide regular food services.
"We’ve been feeding the kids and feeding the hungry during the summer," Herrera said. "It’s been a great success for us ... And it’s just a blessing for me, just to be able to partner with the Golden Harvest Food Bank and get out of the four walls of the church and just feed them in the name of Jesus."
Herrera was especially concerned about the needs of children in his community. Every Monday though Friday throughout the summer, he invited children to come to the church for a program where they play games, participate in activities and receive free breakfast and lunch.
"They get excited about the food," Herrera said. "It just blesses my heart as pastor to see them leave there with a smile on their face."
Herrera said some of the kids don't need a square meal so much as they need "love" and "someone who listens." He tries to get them involved in giving back to the community by participating in the food drives, such as the one held on Wednesday. They help sort food and load boxes into people's vehicles.
"It's hot (outside), but it's God's work," said 10-year-old E.J. Herrera, Pastor Herrera's son. "So that's what makes me happy, to bless the people."
Lisa Sims helped run the summer program for children at Gloverville Pentacostal Church. She helped secure food for the program through the Board of Education.
"There's a lot of kids that need feeding in this area," Sims said. "We had a good bit ... We've had people walk here from the trailer park way up the road just to come get lunch cause the kids didn't have anything to eat."
Sims said a lot of the hunger issues she sees are a byproduct of homelessness caused primarily by drug abuse, though job loss or divorce can sometimes be the cause. She has seen firsthand the effects this can have on children.
"A lot of them get juggled around," Sims said. "They never know where their next meal is or where they're going to stay next until DSS arrives."
Over 122 people came through the small church parking lot on Wednesday, seeking food assistance.
Hunger worsens in summer months
Feeding America, an organization that provides data to federal and state organizations such as Golden Harvest Food Bank, estimates that well over half a million people in South Carolina are food insecure. Over 200,000 of those people are children.
In 2017, the year with the most current available data, there were around 6,700 children who were classified as "food insecure" in Aiken County.
That means about 1 in 5 children in Aiken County don't always know when or where they will get their next meal. It also means that child hunger in Aiken – and overall in South Carolina – is worse than the national average of about 1 in 6 children (around 12 million total) being food insecure.
Across the CSRA, overall hunger is even worse.
"We’re operating at 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 4 kids for our entire coverage area," said Christina Alexander, communications coordinator for Golden Harvest.
Hunger usually strikes worse during the summer, for a variety of reasons.
One of those reasons is the school year ending. Through the National School Lunch Program, children from families that meet income qualifications have easier access to food.
"We know that kids who are more likely to be food insecure are getting free or reduced breakfast and lunch in their schools, and in the summer that goes away," Alexander said.
There are also a variety of programs that run at certain schools in Aiken County to try to feed food-insecure children over the weekends during the school year. Golden Harvest runs a backpack program that provides food supplies to children at 13 schools in Aiken County, which serves about 587 children.
The weather can also make a major impact on whether families are able to afford food for their children.
"July is when you’re in that peak period during the summer months," Alexander said. "Energy bills are higher. In August there’s some light at the end of the tunnel because they’re about to go back to school, and some families try to prepare for all this because they know summer is coming."
Summer food pantries
Golden Harvest created mobile food pantries in part to combat hunger during the summer months. Because the pantries visit areas in need, like Gloverville, people who would otherwise have transportation issues can take a shorter drive or even walk to pick up food supplies.
The food pantries contain summer produce like watermelons, grapes, peaches – food that would be expensive for a low-income family to purchase in a grocery store.
"That food is USDA food," Alexander said. "The other piece of being able to put on these summer markets is that we have gotten a surplus of food. A lot of that is because the government is buying more food that is grown here in the United States because it’s staying here, rather than being sent different places because of tariffs. So, we are seeing the benefit of that."
In May, 84% of the families served through mobile food pantries reported having minors under 18 years old in the household.
In June, mobile food pantries fed 381 children. In July, that number spiked to 927 children.
"We’re also seeing more seniors who are reporting that there are under-18s in the house," Alexander said. "They’re taking care of grandchildren, either for the summer, or they are the sole caretaker of those children."
Alexander said the goal of the pantries, aside from ending hunger, is to build community partnerships and encourage organizations to host their own food drives.
Other organizations, such as ACTS, run food pantries for people on fixed income throughout the year.
Gloverville Pentecostal Holiness Church will host an after-school program for students from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. starting in August. They are also asking for a freezer to be donated to the church to hold food supplies for the children.
The church can be contacted at 803-593-0678.