Feeding the Need

Posted: June 1, 2020 at 7:00 am

Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church Food Pantry is a labor of love

By Vanessa Wolf

People standing next to bags on a table outside.
Many Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church Food Pantry recipients return the favor by donating goods or volunteering.

The Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church Food Pantry has been feeding Marlboro County families in need for more than 18 years.

It all began in February 2002 with church deacon Thomas Johnson.

“Deacon Johnson had a vision and came to my husband, Pastor Gilbert Wilson, with the idea,” says Juanita Wilson, who helps facilitate the charitable cause. “My husband, who has been the pastor there for 28 years, was very excited about it and the opportunity it gave us to help local people.”

For some time, Marlboro County has been one of South Carolina’s most economically challenged areas. Through the years, the once-thriving agriculture-based community has dwindled to fewer than 27,000 residents and faced continued economic constraints. More than 25% of the population lives in poverty, and many older residents depend on limited, fixed Social Security incomes.

Johnson, along with Wilson and his wife, drew inspiration from the Bible.

“God commands us to give to those who are in need,” Juanita says. “We are required to help as much as we can. Jesus showed that in so many ways and demonstrated that so many different times.”

The trio was also motivated by the size of their church, which is large enough to facilitate such an endeavor.

“It was so uplifting to realize we had the necessary space needed to meet the requirements of Harvest Hope, a major sponsor,” Juanita says.

Founded in 1981, Harvest Hope Food Bank began as a combined effort of business leaders and faith organizations to provide for the hungry in Columbia, South Carolina. Since then, it has expanded to 20 counties across the state. In 2019, the food bank distributed more than 22.9 million meals, providing for about 40,425 people every week.

An agreement between the South Carolina Food Bank Association and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture allows Harvest Hope to receive and distribute all USDA commodities—things such as dry milk, canned fruits, and canned vegetables—for the state. Food is allocated by poverty population figures and disbursed to more than 1,300 nonprofit agencies in South Carolina.

In the counties served by Harvest Hope, one in seven adults struggles with hunger. One in six children faces food insecurity.

“That part really touches my heart,” Juanita says. “When you think about the income level of some of the people in Marlboro County, a lot of the children only eat at school. Just thinking about some of our children not having food on the weekends is scary. These families don’t qualify for food stamps, so to be able to provide for them on the weekends is so important. We see those same children helping to carry the bags of food out for their parents and other families, and it’s uplifting.”

The income limit for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—often referred to as food stamps—is 130% of the federal poverty level. This means a family of three may earn up to $26,556 per year, while a single individual can earn up to $15,684 to qualify. For those in a slightly better position but still struggling to make ends meet, food pantries such as the one sponsored by Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church are irreplaceable.

“If you love me, feed my sheep,” reads John 21:17. The Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church Food Pantry nourishes a flock of more than 100 households ranging from one to eight family members.

In 2019, MEC donated $2,000 to the Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church Food Pantry. Pictured, from left, are Sen. Kent Williams, Deacon Thomas Johnson, MEC Marketing and Communications Representative Hanna Cheek, Ernestine Godbolt, and Pastor Gilbert Wilson.

“Each month, we provide for anything from 300 to 400 people,” Juanita says. “The numbers shift because we get more demand during the holidays when we give out turkeys.”

Open once a month, on the fourth Saturday of the month, food pantry services are available to anyone who qualifies and registers.

“We serve all nationalities,” Juanita says. “We don’t discriminate against people. We’re an African American church, but we serve all races. It is not a ministry to draw people to Christ. We don’t give out literature or try to solicit people to come to our church. We’re Baptist, but you can be a part of any religious organization or not. We don’t discriminate. We don’t require anything except that they meet the qualifications.”

Emergency services are being organized to address the coronavirus pandemic. Outside of this, the application period to use the Sandy Grove food pantry runs from June 30 to June 30. Juanita says those who use the food pantry must be certified annually due to changing USDA guidelines. They also must bring an ID to each visit.

In June 2019, income eligibility guidelines for food pantry services were:

  • One person: Up to $19,140 annually, or $1,595 a month.
  • Four people: Up to $39,300 annually, or $3,275 a month.
  • Eight people: Up to $66,180 annually, or $5,515 a month.

At the Sandy Grove food pantry, everything is confidential. Bags are prefilled based on the applications on file. Juanita says bags are packed according to the size of the household.

“It’s a huge amount of food that we’re able to give to each family every month,” she says. “I see people so excited to have access to healthy food and plenty of it. I don’t want anyone to ever feel bad about coming here. These are wonderful people, and it’s an honor to serve them.”

Call to Action

To register for annual food pantry benefits or if you are struggling and need immediate assistance due to the COVID-19 crisis, visit the Harvest Hope website. Scroll down, enter your zip code and call the agencies listed to learn what solutions are available.

If you are unable to access the internet, call Harvest Hope’s Florence office at (843) 661-0826.

If you are in a more fortunate position, South Carolina food banks are having difficulties obtaining the resources necessary to meet current demand. Please consider a financial donation to any nonprofit organization working to feed the hungry, including No Kid Hungry, Harvest Hope, and Sandy Grove Missionary Baptist Church Food Pantry. Send Sandy Grove donations to c/o Deacon Thomas Johnson, 459 Marshall St., Bennettsville, SC 29512.