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Food Pantries Depend On Holiday Donations To Help Them Get Through The Year

A truck from the St. Louis Area Food Bank makes a delivery at a rural southern Illinois church that was holding a food fair for low-income residents.
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | 2010 File photo
  • Cans of soup.
  • Diapers.
  • Cash to buy gas to keep the trucks running.

The holiday wish list for St. Louis agencies that assist the hungry is long and never-ending because what comes in, soon goes out -- and the shelves need to be filled again.
“These are consumables. We get stuff and then we don’t have stuff,’’ said Fran Ventimiglia who oversees two food pantries operated by volunteers of the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Catholicparish in Ferguson. “Two weeks ago we didn’t have any meat products. We had pasta, canned goods. Miraculously, we got a generous donation we were able to use toward meat.’’

And last week, Ventimiglia was thankful to get a call from a law firm  that is donating chickens for Thanksgiving dinners.

Keeping the supplies flowing is also a challenge at Circle of Concern, a pantry in Valley Park that serves west St. Louis County. Just two weeks ago, many of the pantry’s shelves were so empty that executive director Chris Pallozola put out a call for help to local community groups.

She noted that Circle is one of about 500 pantries that will benefit from the annual Scouting for Food drive held last weekend by the Greater St. Louis Area Council. It is the region’s largest one-day food drive.

“The Boy Scouts did a great job in bringing in food last week, but those sort of things have to continually happen for us to feed those people who are hungry,’’ Pallozola said.

Rising food prices are also having an impact on donations, she said. 

“If someone is thinking about making a food donation of $20 -- we’re going to get less food this year because the price of food has gone up,’’ she said.

Circle of Concern distributes about a week’s worth of food to between 700 and 800 families every month.

It’s The Giving Season

Five years after economists say the Great Recession officially ended, St. Louis agencies that feed the hungry say the need for donations remains great because people who need help need it longer.

Credit Flickr | USACEpublicaffairs | file photo
Food drives are important, but what comes in goes out quickly.

On the bright side, the unemployment rate for the St. Louis area is now just above 6 percent – down from its peak of 10.4 percent in November 2009. But newly created jobs – many in the service industry -- haven’t kept pace with the thousands of jobs lost during the recession that had better pay and benefits.

“We’re seeing working poor that are in need for a much longer period of time -- and the elderly population,’’ says Frank Finnegan, president of the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

Finnegan says that when his agency started 40 years ago, the need for assistance tended to be shorter.

“People were between jobs. They might need help for two or three months until they got back into the work force. Today, unfortunately, we have a much larger segment of the population that is always going to be in need,’’ he said. “They’re working part-time jobs or even full time, but if they’re in the service industry they’re not making as much as they were in the manufacturing industry. Pay has not kept up.”

A recent study commissioned by Feeding Americafound that nearly 400,000 people struggle with getting enough food in the 26 counties in Missouri and Illinois that are served by the food bank. Nearly 75 percent of those individuals said that during the previous 12 months, they had to choose between paying for food or paying their utility bills at least one time.

Scouting for Food brought about 650,000 pounds to the food bank, and most of it was shelf-stable canned goods, Finnegan said.

“That will carry us through our coldest winter months,’’ he said. “Often times, donations from other sources are going to be produce and perishables and frozen  items. This adds to our mix.’’

The agencies all say that they depend heavily on donations made during the holidays to help them get through the year.

Sunny Schaefer, executive director of Operation Food Search, says there are many who will not have the traditional turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.

“Going into the holidays, it’s always staggering simply because the need so far outpaces the supply that we have. So many people are going to have to do without a Thanksgiving meal. A lot of people are not going to have a turkey. They might have a chicken or sometimes not even that,’’ she said. “We try to provide as many meals as we can. Of course, this is a problem that exists 365 days of the year, but I think during the holidays nobody wants to think of a family going without.’’

Operation Food Search provides food to about 300 community agencies, including emergency food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. Those agencies help feed 180,000 people each month.

Schaefer echoed the concern that food insecurity in the region hasn’t declined with the drop in unemployment.

“The majority of people who go to a food pantry for help are working,’’ she said.

Need Remains Elevated In Ferguson

Since August, when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, food pantry volunteers at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish have been helping more people.

Ventimiglia said the parish's two pantries used to assist about 376 families each month; that number now averages 440. She attributes the increase to growing awareness about the program’s existence.

“Although we are here all the time, and we thought people knew we were here, people became more aware of the food pantries who might not have sought us out before,’’ she said. “They needed help but didn’t know where to find it before.’’

Food boxes are stacked this summer at the food pantry at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Ferguson.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Food boxes are stacked this summer at the food pantry at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Ferguson.

During the height of the unrest, volunteers distributed food and toiletries to additional sites, including Koch Elementary School, which is part of the Riverview Gardens School District and serves children who live in the Canfield Green Apartments. The shooting occurred on the street outside the apartment complex.

Ventimiglia said that some residents were unable to get to work or lost hours because businesses closed temporarily. For people already struggling financially, even a few days of lost wages can mean the difference between getting by and needing help. She’s also talked to residents who said they had increased medical bills due to anxiety or asthma attacks triggered by tear gas or smoke.

She said that businesses and community and church groups have stepped up their donations to the pantries, which are run by about 50 volunteers.

Despite the intense national scrutiny on Ferguson, Ventimiglia says her community is no different than any average American community.

“We have people who have needs. We have sincere people who want to help and make it better and maybe we don’t know exactly how,’’ she said. “The violence that has been seen, I think it’s isolated. I have lived in Ferguson since I was a child. I am not afraid to come and go from my home in the daytime or in the evening.’’

She said much of the anxiety in Ferguson is due to rumors, as the community continues to wait for the results of the grand jury that is deciding whether Wilson should be indicted. In the meantime, the pantry volunteers are dedicated to their mission of helping their neighbors.

“If we can get there and open the doors we will be there,’’ she said. “That need hasn’t gone away. We want to keep trying to address that need.’’

Volunteers Make A Difference

In addition to food donations, volunteers are needed year-round to help collect, transport, sort and distribute, say the agencies.

At the Good News Baptist Church in Jennings, the army of volunteers numbers only about a dozen, but they serve between 500 and 600 families a week.

Dlarce Austin, right, a sister of Good News Baptist Church helps Austin Jones unload his car. Shopping carts are key to moving food at the pantry.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | File photo
Dlarce Austin, right, a sister of Good News Baptist Church helps Austin Jones unload his car. Shopping carts are key to moving food at the pantry.

Church Deacon Arstell Jones and his colleagues make almost daily runs to the St. Louis Area Foodbank to pick up and distribute perishables donated by local stores and restaurants: dairy items, produce, sandwiches. On a recent day, they gave out pizza, packaged meat, potatoes and baked goods. Jones says that people often start waiting at the church at 6:30 in the morning.

They also provide boxes of food at monthly distributions for residents and special commodity boxes for about 100 seniors.

“We’re busy every day of the week now,’’ Jones said. “Last year, we did 2 million pounds of food; this year’s goal is 2.5 million pounds.’’

The volunteers used to transport the food in their personal cars and trucks until the food bank donated a used refrigerated truck to the church. Now, Jones said, the church needs cash donations to buy fuel.

The church ramped up its pantry operation during the recession because so many in his community lost jobs.

“It’s improving a little, but not enough,’’ he said. “It’s rough out here. It’s hard to pay utility bills and eat, too.’’

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.