It started as a drive-thru charity experiment to see whether tourists in the Brunswick County town of Holden Beach would drop off leftover food on their way out of town.
Charlotte retiree Bill Spier, who has a summer home at Holden Beach, saw it as a way to help a community whose unemployment rate frequently ranks among the state’s highest.
“On the first day, I only collected about 30 pounds of food in five hours, which is what, about six pounds an hour?” Spier recalled. “I didn’t even consider giving up. I felt like I’d been challenged.”
Eight summers later, Spier can officially declare the experiment a success, having finally reached the 100,000-pound mark for donated food.
Actually, it’s now up to 110,907 pounds, if you include the past few weeks.
Every pound was collected as 79-year-old Spier and his 1990 Nissan pickup sat 200 feet shy of the bridge that leads out of Holden Beach to the mainland.
“I’m overwhelmed because this is what I used to daydream about,” Spier said. “I had hoped we’d eventually reach a couple of thousand pounds a year. And every time it grew, my dreams would increase. That first year, we did maybe 2,000 pounds. Now, we’re averaging 2,000 pounds on a single Saturday.”
He credits the increase to better advertising, including notes that go into the rental packets handed out to tourists. Signs are also posted at businesses around town, and announcements are made at church services.
The program is called A Second Helping, which fits because Spier will even accept food that is already open, including sugar, flour, margarine and eggs.
His target audience is the horde of tourists that typically checks out of the town’s nearly 800 rental houses each Saturday morning. Few want to lug a cooler of food back home with them, and Spier sees himself as providing an alternative to the trash can.
It’s an idea that has been tried in a few other beach towns, though the more common approach is placing a collection barrel in the rental office lobbies.
Charity leaders in Holden Beach say the resulting truckloads of food have been critical during the economic downturn, as Brunswick County suffered through unemployment rates as high as 14 percent.
Most of the county’s residents depend heavily on the low-wage jobs associated with tourism, including hotel and restaurant work, officials said.
Currently, two Holden Beach pantries receive food from Spier’s effort, one at Brunswick Islands Baptist Church and another at Sharon United Methodist Church.
New program delays food stamps
Bob Blough, who manages the pantry at Brunswick Islands Baptist, says things have worsened even more in recent weeks as the county’s poor have experienced lengthy delays in getting their food stamps.
Those delays have been reported statewide – including in Mecklenburg County – and are the inadvertent result of North Carolina’s changeover to a new electronic benefits system called NC FAST. The system, when completed, is expected to save time and money in processing benefits.
“We’ve got people here in Brunswick County seeing two weeks or more of delays in getting their food stamps, and the numbers are growing,” Blough said. “It’s causing a lot of headaches.”
Teacher Martie Arrowood of Holden Beach is among Spier’s donors, and she also considers herself a recipient in a roundabout way.
“I’m a middle school teacher here, and I’d say up to 15 percent of my kids are dealing with hunger. Every time I give to the program, I feel like I’m feeding my kids,” she said.
“I don’t know what drives (Spier), but he’s a wonderful man. The first couple of years, it was just him out there by himself. Then he started getting help.”
Spier typically operates A Second Helping on Saturday mornings from mid-June to the Labor Day weekend. Most of the time, he’s out there alone, but an assistant named Don Downs often shows up during the rush, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Downs operates the pantry at Sharon Methodist.
Spier has many reasons for starting the charity. One reason: He is unable to sit still. He didn’t retire from his job in the industrial chemical business until he was 73.
“My wife, Phyllis, refers to me as an eternal optimist,” he said.
“I knew this would eventually catch on when I had people thanking me for keeping them from throwing away food. I just provide the link between those people who want to help and the people who need help.”