Sylvia Cameron skips more meals each week than she wants to recall.
The 51-year-old Orange County woman makes half-hearted jokes about the missed meals – telling herself she could stand to lose a few pounds – but knows it’s because her refrigerator is most often bare.
The $16 she gets in food stamps each month isn’t enough to keep Cameron, who is on disability for a variety of physical and mental ailments, fed.
So, on the third Friday of each month, she goes to the assembly hall at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cedar Grove north of Hillsborough to pick up a cardboard box filled with canned vegetables, breads and processed meats.
“This is a blessing,” Cameron said last Friday, gesturing to the cardboard box of food. “I wouldn’t have anything to eat at all.”
Unless she receives an invitation to join relatives Christmas Day, she plans to fix a holiday dinner for herself and her college-aged daughter out of the food she picked up at the church.
A half-dozen volunteers, most of them church members, have been running the small food pantry at Mt. Zion AME Church for close to a decade and know how needed the service is in the surrounding rural area, and in a country where the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.
“This is not a third-world country,” said Vivian Herndon Latta, who organizes and runs the Mount Zion food pantry, about the need to address why some people are going without food.
Hunger is a commonplace problem all over the state where one in six people experienced hunger in 2012, slightly above the national average, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture  report released this fall.
One in four North Carolinian children doesn’t have assured access to food, and North Carolina also has the undesirable distinction of having, along with Louisiana, the highest rates of children facing food shortages, according to the N.C. Association of Feeding American Food Banks .
Food banks and food pantries in the state have also seen steady increases this year, influxes attributed to a variety of factors but including the state’s July 1 rejection of federal unemployment aid for long-term jobless workers and a bungled launch of the N.C. FAST benefits system  that prevented thousands from signing up or accessing their federally-funded food stamps.
The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which serves a third of the state’s 100 counties, is now operating in a “disaster mode” meaning that food is distributed as soon as it is received by the food bank, according to spokeswoman Christy Simmons.
“Food has always gone right back out of our doors as quickly as it comes in,” Simmons wrote in an email. “It is just moving even faster during these tough economic times.”
The Mt. Zion church has made the pantry one of their church missions, and uses money out of the church treasury to buy additional food on top of what the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina can provide. That means the cardboard boxes can occasionally have fresh fruit, additional meats and desserts, as they did this past Friday.
Those desserts may seem frivolous for those critical of how the poor get by, says Joy Lipscomb, but it’s a rare chance for her two young grandsons to get a treat. This month, she was able to bring home a package of cupcakes that had been donated to the food pantry by an area Food Lion.
“If it weren’t for these places, I wouldn’t know how to feed the children,” Lipscomb said as she and her family picked up a cardboard box of food from the food pantry.
The people that come to the Mt. Zion church food pantry don’t fit a single demographic, said Barbara Breeze, a church member who has volunteered with the food pantry since it started a decade ago.
Many have jobs, but just don’t have the money to stretch out their paychecks to cover their needs for the month. Others are elderly, and trying to live off a fixed income.
Cameron, the Orange County woman, said her $16 of food stamps can sometimes buy her a week’s worth of food, when she makes sure to buy low-cost items that will last.
With her daughter on break during the holidays from her sophomore year at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Cameron hopes to have enough to feed both herself and her daughter.
Cameron proudly reports that her daughter is doing well at school, but may need to transfer to a community college with the cost and increasing tuition of the state university too much for the impoverished family to shoulder.
Cameron is also worried that her food stamps may be reduced, with some cuts  that went into effect in November and more expected next year as Congress battles over a reauthorization of the farm bill and debates how much funding should be given to food stamps.
“Please God, don’t let it happen,” she said she prays about her food stamps.
Want to donate? Need food? You can find food pantries nearest you by searching this interactive map  at the N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks.