The Palmetto Breeze Transit Hub in Bluffton is usually abuzz on Thursdays because it’s the day when volunteers from Second Helpings greet commuters from Hilton Head Island, but Oct. 13 was special.
This was a fifth anniversary celebration of Fill the Need, a program that provides fruit, vegetables, baked goods, meats and other items to workers whose long commute to and from the island keeps them from accessing their neighborhood groceries or local food banks. The effort has provided 250,000 pounds of food to bus riders, impacting hundreds of families as distant as two hours away.
The program began when the Breeze contacted Second Helpings, the Lowcountry’s nonprofit food rescue and distribution network, about the challenges island workers faced obtaining food for their families.
“They called us, and we formed this innovative partnership. I don’t know of anybody else who does this,” said Mary Ann Bell, Second Helpings president. “We invite the riders to come in every Thursday. We give them bags, and we encourage them to take a selection of meats and a lot of healthy food, produce, canned goods and things like that.”
Although there was a ceremonial cake-cutting, the real excitement came closer to 5 p.m. That’s when commuter buses from Hilton Head began to arrive, discharging their passengers who eagerly lined up at the check-in before heading to the tables laden with food of all kinds.
The dozen or so Second Helpings volunteers were eager to help.
As the bus riders moved along the tables, the hum in the Hub – the Breeze’s garage – increased. Each person scanned the offerings, picking up peppers, onions, berries, green beans, apples and squash – whatever they wanted that could supplement what they already had at home, particularly fresh produce.
Also available were frozen meat, stacks of homemade cookies, and racks of canned and dry goods, including cereal, sugar and flour.
As the riders finished their selections, they headed out of the Hub to their connecting bus for the long ride home, some going as far as Walterboro and Yemassee.
One busload replaced the next, but the atmosphere was always the same. It was like Old Home Week as the volunteers and the riders cheerily greeted one another, chatted about their week and – it appeared – to share some recipes for the produce on hand. And why not?
“Probably most of the volunteers who work here have been here for the full five years,” said Bell. “Second Helpings has a total of 325 volunteers, and most of them work the trucks, so we’ve got eight refrigerated trucks criss-crossing the three counties that we work in every day.”
Bell said what was on the tables and shelves was mostly food the organization has rescued from food stores in the area, but it is also supplemented it with purchases of healthy food. The organization has a partnership with Dempsey Farms on St. Helena Island, and raises money to buy more food from a food service distributor.
The individual who oversees and ensures that a variety of foods is available is Second Helpings program chairperson Margie Tomczak, who also is the person who started Fill the Need.
Tomczak makes sure the registration is done, that there will be enough volunteers, finds substitutes if necessary, makes sure the food is procured or brought from the nonprofit, and brings in items from food drives held by places like St. Francis by the Sea, Indigo Run and Sun City.
“One of the points I made this morning was the first bus leaves Walterboro at 4:24 a.m. It makes stops along the way; it gets here at 6:24. People then change buses, and they get dropped off on the island at 7:25 a.m. at their jobs,” said Tomczak. “Then the route reverses itself. So think about these people who get on the bus before five o’clock in the morning, and get home at seven, eight o’clock at night.”
Viola Williams, one of several riders who work for the Disney Resort on Hilton Head Island, commutes from Yemassee, because it’s a better paying job than anything near her home. She has been a participant since the program first began.
“It’s good, because sometimes it helps with my struggles. You’ve got other bills, and the money you have has to go to the bills,” Williams said. “This helps it go further.”
For a lot of those rural commuters, Dollar General might be the closest grocery store.
Every new rider gets a large bag to hold their selections. This helps get the food home, but for some, taking what they want would be burden because they may have a long walk home when they are dropped off at a central location, such as the corner gas station.
Brian Sullivan, Palmetto Breeze executive director and general manager, said Fill the Need has made a tremendous impact on the passengers.
“They commute about two hours each way, every day. They don’t even have time to shop,” Sullivan said. “A lot of them just really appreciate the opportunity to come and pick some really nice food for free, take it home to their families, and just gives them sort of a leg up.”
The impact also affects the bus drivers, said Sullivan because their long days also keep them from stopping at any grocery stores.
“A lot of our drivers take advantage of the contributions as well because they deserve to, but they really look forward to Thursdays,” Sullivan said. “In the public transit world, there’s nothing like this. Those other public transits, they’re a very different animal than ours. So it’s really great that we can do something that’s unique. And the drivers really do appreciate being a part of it.”
Charles Mitchell, chairperson of the Palmetto Breeze board of directors, said the program was absolutely amazing, and the drivers take pride in their contribution of driving safely.
For that 4:24 a.m. bus in Walterboro, the driver must get up around 3 a.m., Mitchell said. The return trip puts him home closer to 8 p.m.
“So they’re already in a long shift,” said Mitchell. “So far, we’ve been blessed with their safety and their driving, that we’ve been able to get people to work without any accidents. This speaks volumes for the kind of drivers that we have here.”
Mitchell is also proud of the partnership with Second Helpings. “It’s so important because we’re able to give back some token of appreciation,” he said. “So we look forward this giving back every Thursday.”
The tables were covered with a cornucopia of produce, beautifully set out for the riders, belying the Hub’s earlier appearance.
“It’s all the volunteers who do the hard work, and get it all cleaned up and pretty,” said Sullivan. “I’m amazed because it’s a jumbled mess at times during the week, but by the time Thursday rolls around, it looks like this: very nice and orderly.”
The impact of the program isn’t limited to the riders and drivers. The volunteers also get something out of their service.
“I do it because of the gift of giving to others and the gifts they give back to us,” said Nancy Calhoun Sullivan. “I get appreciation, enjoyment, joy.”
Kathy O’Donnell said she volunteers to give back to the community. “There are people that need it. And it gives me great joy to be able to provide that,” she said. “And it’s a simple opportunity to volunteer, and they can receive something they need.”
Resources are almost back to normal, but during COVID it was “extremely difficult” and quantity was hard to come by, according to Second Helpings Executive Director Marcus Tanner.
“In every aspect of the word, with regards to logistics, personnel, staff, grocery stores. There were so many restrictions put on not only the grocery stores, but our clientele, our volunteers,” he said. “There was on average, about 20 to 30 minutes per stop at the grocery stores to pick up (donated food).”
Local restrictions on quantities reduced what the volunteers were able to pick up, Tanner said, which in turn reduced what Second Helpings was able to drop off.
The reduced availability lasted nearly a year. Once a lot of restrictions were released, what Second Helpings noticed was they were still faced with supply chain restrictions.
“Grocery stores are ordering 50 cases of chicken and getting 12. And so what they bring in, in return affects what they push out to us,” said Tanner. “Our grocery stores have just been absolutely amazing in what they’ve done. We’re still at a slight decline compared to where we should be, but our agencies, our staff and our grocery stores are all working together to figure out the best way possible to get the most food to the right people.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.