'Everybody knows about Good News': Jennings food pantry is on a mission to serve
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2010 - Deacon Jones is cruising down Interstate 270 in his silver sedan packed with yesterday's breads and pastries and cardboard banana boxes stuffed with soon-to-expire sacks of lettuce, packaged cheeses, eggs, deli sandwiches and other supermarket cast-offs.
Jones -- whose given name is Arstell, though no one seems to call him that -- is a deacon at the Good News Baptist Church in Jennings, and he is on a never-ending mission to gather food for the poor and hungry of St. Louis.
His Friday morning "shopping trip" to the St. Louis Area Foodbank in Earth City has been fruitful. By arriving just after the warehouse opened at 8 a.m., he has procured a pallet of perishables donated by local Shop N Save stores to supplement the canned goods he and seven other volunteers will distribute at the church food pantry on Saturday morning.
Behind him on the interstate is Gary Craig, another deacon at Good News whose '96 Ford Taurus -- nicknamed "The Haul-It-All" -- is also crammed full. To fit more food in their cars, Jones and Craig have unpacked some boxes and stacked and piled the loose items into their trunks.
"By the time I'm finished, there's only room for me -- like the cockpit of a jet fighter," Craig says, as he stows one more sack of rolls into the back seat. "We really, really need a truck."
Some days, church volunteers with trucks are able to help, but it depends on their work schedules -- and jobs come first, Jones says.
The volunteers make the 36-mile roundtrip between the church and the food bank several times a week, arriving around 8 a.m. to get the first crack at donations from area Sam's Club, Walmart, Shop N Save and Target stores.
When they get to the church on Jennings Station Road, several volunteers arrive to help with the unloading. Using three shopping carts, they empty the cars, wheeling the food into a storage room where non-perishables are grouped onto shelves and perishables crammed into a refrigerator and a couple of small freezers.
The pantry's shelves are full today, but they will be nearly empty tomorrow after the monthly food distribution. Although the pantry is always available to help people in food emergencies, it opens its doors to serve anyone in need every fourth Saturday at 9:30 a.m.
There may be some who work as hard, but no one works harder to hand a needy stranger a box of food than the pantry volunteers at the Good News Baptist Church, say staff members at the food bank.
Why do they do it?
"We're doing what the Lord told us to do: Feed my people," Jones says, as he wheels a cartful of food into the church.
'Have a blessed day'
Over the course of a year, the St. Louis Area Foodbank provides about 22 million pounds of food to an estimated 261,000 people. The food is distributed by nearly 500 agencies in 14 counties in Missouri and 12 counties in Illinois.
Faith-based agencies do the lion's share of the distribution, operating 65 percent of the food pantries, 44 percent of the soup kitchens and 39 percent of the shelters served by the food bank. And many of these programs, including the Good News pantry, rely entirely on unpaid volunteers.
At Good News, which has several hundred members, eight volunteers do the heavy lifting for the food pantry. Most of the people they serve do not belong to their church, but all are greeted with a friendly smile and a prayer: "Have a blessed day."
A short church service precedes the Saturday distribution. Attendance is optional, but because people are given numbers when they arrive, those who participate in the service are usually the first to be served when the pantry opens.
Pastor Byron Crawford offered a warm welcome at the March service, held in a fellowship room that bears his name, just down the hall from the food pantry. Crawford acknowledged that none of the 40 or so men, women and children seated at folding tables before him had planned to be in need of food. The majority are seniors, though some youngsters sit by their parents.
"We thank you for the opportunity to serve you this morning," Crawford says.
Then, as Rev. Juanita Jones -- the deacon's wife -- delivers a spirited message about faith, the pantry volunteers prepare for business.
"God says, 'I've got your back.' He's got your back," Rev. Jones tells her temporary flock, as they rise to their feet in applause.
Each will get a box of non-perishables packed by the volunteers that morning. Most of the canned vegetables, soups and fruits were collected by area Boy Scouts in last November's annual food drive. Thanks to yesterday's shopping trip to the food bank, the people today will also get a sack of rolls or a tub of croissants, a carton of eggs, two frozen pizzas and a cake, pie, or some sweet, plus a sack of toiletries.
While Jones handles the food procurement, Craig organizes the distributions. It is an orderly affair, and no one stands in line at Good News. They wait their turns, seated in the fellowship hall.
The food is passed out as quickly as the pantry's three shopping carts allow. As each person is presented with the day's offering, little is said, except "thank you" and the day's refrain: "Have a blessed day."
"Bring the cart back as soon as you can," the volunteers will say, although quite often, they also wheel the carts outside and load the cars, particularly for the elderly or for moms with young children in tow.
While much of the food distributed by the food bank, such as USDA commodities and food drive donations, is free to local pantries, the pantries are also able to buy other items at the bargain rate of 10 cents a pound, a shared maintenance fee used to offset the food bank's operational costs. On any given day, this might include meats and fresh fruits or even diapers and toiletries. Because ordering is done online, Jones spends hours monitoring the food bank's website, watching for specials when they become available.
Last year, the Good News pantry distributed 341,673 pounds of food from the food bank and paid nearly $3,000 in shared maintenance fees. The volunteers raised the money through fundraisers, including staffing a concession stand at Busch Stadium. The church also hosts mobile food distributions from the food bank on the last Tuesday of the month.
Though he has managed to assemble a nice assortment of food to give away, Jones says it won't stretch very far.
"It's really just one good meal," he says.
'We need to stop and be thankful'
On this Saturday, 60 boxes are handed out, and no one seems happier than a little boy who was celebrating his sixth birthday. He leaves with a decorated marble sheet cake in his arms -- an unclaimed order donated by a local supermarket bakery. Never mind that it has someone else's name written in yellow frosting.
"People will ask, 'Do you have a birthday cake?' and most of the time we do," Craig says.
In what has become a pantry tradition, Craig awards the last person in line a frozen turkey or ham. Then the volunteers quickly lock up and head off to other Saturday tasks.
For Craig, that means visiting his wife who was seriously injured in a car accident and is now in a nursing home, and watching his son, who is in high school, play an afternoon baseball game.
"A lot of us are going through a lot in our lives," he told the people at the opening prayer service. "Prayer works."
The pantry workers never know how many people to expect, but Dlarce Austin said they only ran short of food once.
"Just once around Thanksgiving," Austin said. "They just kept coming."
Austin, a "sister" of the church, said the volunteers have a passion for their work.
"We pray that God gives us the strength to be able to do this," she says. "What puts a smile on your face is how thankful they are."
The food pantry work is physical -- the lifting and packing and moving tiresome -- but the volunteers hustle to keep the line moving.
"We try to get them in and out in a reasonable amount of time," says Michael Holliday, also a deacon, as he quickly packs more boxes of food for several late arrivals.
Holliday says the volunteers don't delve into the personal circumstances of the people they are helping. They don't know the how or the when of anyone's hard times.
"We serve anybody," he says.
And as serious as their work is, the volunteers enjoy themselves.
When Austin takes a moment to rest her ailing back, Jones threatens to fire her.
"But I'll hire you again on Monday," Craig tells her.
The church workers say they have watched the need grow as the economy worsened -- and not just among the unemployed.
Rae Madison of Florissant said she started coming to the Good News pantry because she had no where else to turn. After paying her mortgage, she had no money left to buy food for her family.
Madison works as a school crossing guard, and her daughter, who is in college, works as a waitress. Madison also receives Supplemental Security Income payments for her 8-year-old son who has asthma and sleep apnea. Though she struggles to pay her bills, Madison said her family has too much income to qualify for food stamps.
Madison said she feels good about going to Good News because the pantry is well-organized, and the volunteers treat people with respect.
"Everybody knows about Good News," Madison said.
Jones appreciates that the tough times are far from over for the people he serves, so come Monday he will get back in his silver sedan and go "shopping" again. For the Good News volunteers, the pantry is their mission, and they embrace it.
"We need to stop and be thankful," he says, at one point, when talk turns to the the economy and the fairness of it all. "Look at other countries. What we're experiencing is temporary hard times."
By the Numbers
The St. Louis Area Foodbank
* The food bank provides 22 million pounds of food to an estimated 261,000 people in eastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois
* 39 percent of the members of households served are children
* 7 percent are elderly
* 60 percent of clients are non-Hispanic white, 32 percent are non-Hispanic black, 4 percent are Hispanic
* 70 percent have incomes below the federal poverty level
* 1 percent is homeless
* 42 percent of households include at least one employed adult
* Overall, 7.4 percent of the adult clients are currently employed full-time; 10 percent employed part-time.
* 7.3 percent of clients have recently lost their jobs
* 49.7 percent of all clients have not worked for more than two years.
Source: "Hunger in America 2010," a report prepared for the St. Louis Area Foodbank