Columbia County Cares started distributing Thanksgiving dinners to those in need earlier this week.
Director Lou Reda said beginning the distribution process a month early is not unusual, but the increase in the number of families the food pantry serves is out of the ordinary.
Through September, Columbia County Cares has served an average of 386.6 families a month.
The monthly average for 2006 was 386.8 families; in 2005, it was 294.5 families.
Mr. Reda attributed the increase to two factors: the food pantry is becoming better known, and the county population is growing at a rapid rate.
"When a county grows, everything grows with it. And that includes the people that need us," Mr. Reda said.
He said the families that the organization serves include elderly residents on fixed incomes, people with disabilities and those who are having temporary setbacks.
Barry Forde, the associate director of Golden Harvest Food Bank, said that in past years, October to December has been the busiest time for his organization. Now, he said, "We see a constant stream of people year-round."
Last year, about 250,000 families made visits to the Georgia and South Carolina food pantries that Golden Harvest supplies, he said.
He said that figure represented about a 10 percent increase compared to the previous year. In addition, Mr. Forde said, Golden Harvest distributed more than 10 million pounds of food last year.
"There are more and more working poor, in a sense, having to visit the pantries," he said.
Many of the people they serve have "minimum-wage jobs, where any kind of bump in the road suddenly puts someone at risk of not having enough food," he said.
Mr. Forde said the rising cost of housing and gasoline also have contributed to the increased numbers of working poor.
Cornelius Jenkins, the Golden Harvest warehouse manager in Aiken, said the number of South Carolina families the organization serves also has increased, particularly since it added five counties to its service area this summer.
He said Golden Harvest is trying to schedule more food drives to aid its larger service area.
To save on costs while meeting a growing demand, Mr. Reda said Columbia County Cares is distributing small chickens instead of turkeys this year. Golden Harvest will for the first time distribute about 1,000 holiday boxes, which include a canned ham, to the agencies it serves, Mr. Forde said.
Reach Betsy Gilliland at (706) 868-1222, ext. 113, or email@example.com.
HOW TO HELP
Golden Harvest Food Bank and Columbia County Cares need volunteers, food and monetary donations. For more information, contact Golden Harvest at (706) 736-1199 and Columbia County Cares at (706) 541-2834.