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Take Five Economy is still a slow-motion crisis, says Glenn Koenen as he steps down from food pantry

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 19, 2012 - Glenn Koenen, who is stepping down after 17 years as executive director of the Circle of Concern food pantry in Valley Park, says the need in western St. Louis County has not subsided in the aftermath of the great recession.

“Right now, this is a slow-motion crisis,’’ he said. “A huge portion of the people in this region are struggling because of the economy. They are victims of things beyond their control. We still have to work together to get everybody through this. There’s enough food in the region. There’s enough money in the region to keep everybody afloat. We just need to be willing to do what we can to help each other to get through this. Hopefully in a couple of years things will turn around, and then Circle of Concern won’t be seeing 20 percent increases in need every year."

Koenen said the number of people fed annually by Circle has spiked from 4,000 when he joined the nonprofit in 1995 to more than 25,000 in 2011.

“When I started this job, Circle was open to the public 12 hours a week. Now we’re open as many as 35 hours a week,’’ he said. “It’s gone from being a job that one staff person could handle, working with 50 volunteers, to five staff people and 250 volunteers. And we’re always playing catch-up.”

Koenen, 55, will be succeeded by Charlene Buckley, Circle’s associate executive director.

“All good things must come to an end,’’ he said. “For me, it’s time to look at other paths, and for Circle it’s time to get a fresh perspective and shake things up a little. This time of year is the slowest time of year at Circle. Even though Circle is busy and feeding more people than ever, it’s a very stable time for the organization. Our building is paid for.  I’m leaving behind a very good staff.”

Circle of Concern traces its roots to 1967 when churches in western St. Louis County began coordinating their volunteer efforts to combat rural poverty. They centralized operations in Valley Park in 1989. Koenen was hired in 1995 to coordinate the volunteers.  Circle still relies heavily on volunteers and the financial support of local churches, businesses, civic groups and foundations. The current facility was constructed in 2009.

Koenen credits the community for Circle’s growth.

“I’ve been the guy kicking everybody else in the butt is the way somebody put it,’’ he said. “Before that, there wasn’t any staff and some of the volunteers working closest with families felt there needed to be more structure and organization.’’

The food pantry provides eligible families with a week’s supply of food once a month. That includes frozen meat, fresh produce, milk and eggs, plus personal-care items. Circle also provides assistance with utility bills, and volunteers have developed innovative programs, such as a birthday club that gives children wrapped presents, plus cake mix, frosting, candles and party hats.

“It’s never been easy to raise money,’’ Koenen said. “That’s something every charity director understands. But it’s been gratifying to see the way people have responded. We’ve never asked for more than we need, and the community recognizes that and has tried hard to support us when we do ask. Even out here in the county where we have big fancy houses in many places, and fancy cars, the number of families who are really struggling continues to grow.’’

Here are more excerpts from the Beacon’s interview with Koenen:

What has been the long-term effect of the Great Recession on Circle of Concern?

Koenen: We’ve seen a lot more families who are best described as formerly middle class. There have always been more families or people than most of us realize who are struggling -- going between working class and working poor and really poor, based upon job availability and things like that. There have always been a lot of families at risk that way. But we’re seeing a lot more families who back in 2007 were solid middle-class people with a home mortgage, car payments, kids in private schools.

A lot of families have seen their lives turned upside down since everything hit in 2008. Most have not gotten back to where they were, even if they were lucky enough to find employment. The jobs are a lot lower paying than the jobs they had before. We have families coming to Circle now who are people in their 40s -- the prime earning years -- and they’re in good health and have good educations, people you would never expect to see in a food pantry.

This February, we fed 2,138 people. In February 2008, we fed 1,016. And that’s been happening every month of the year.

Is the rising price of gasoline -- and food prices -- affecting your efforts?

Koenen: It’s interesting to me how in the last few years, the price of gasoline and milk has come together. We hear this from families all of the time. They may be working only part-time now, and they must decide. Do they buy milk or do they buy gasoline? They have to buy gasoline because if they don’t get to work everything else falls apart. It’s not just a few people. It’s a lot of people having to make hard decisions like that every day.

We’re buying 300 gallons of milk a week here now. Every dime [of a price increase] costs us $30. We’ve had weeks when the cost of milk has gone up $60. When I go to the grocery store, it takes more money to get through the checkouts than it used to. But we’re fortunate. My wife and I both have jobs. We’re good at watching our money, but there’s nothing we can do to bring down the cost of a gallon of milk.

Like every other charity in town, probably, we’re watching our donations closely because there are weeks and months where they’re not as strong as they were a couple of years ago. People are being generous. It’s just that we need so much now to keep doing the same thing: to keep giving people a seven-day supply of food. That’s a lot of green beans and boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of soup. We’re going through about 2,500 bars of soap a month. Each family gets at least two bars, a few rolls of toilet paper.

If you had told me when I walked in the door in 1995 that someday Circle would be feeding 25,000 people who would be going through about 2 million pounds of food and stuff, I probably would have turned around and run away. Back then it was inconceivable, especially in western St. Louis County, that you would have a situation in which the number of people in need would be so great.

The nation’s unemployment rate has leveled off at around 8.3 percent, and it’s at 7.5 percent in Missouri. Is the economy improving?

Koenen: The pain is still getting worse for a lot of people. I’m sensing, reading through the information the families bring in, that a lot more people are falling behind. They have a past due balance on their electric bill that they never had before. They’re behind on their sewer bills. They’re trying to keep their old car running.

It’s very possible that we could have 2 to 3 percent unemployment and still have more poverty than we have today. It is very possible that the jobs they get will be lower-paying jobs or part-time jobs. We have seen a tremendous increase in the idea of “just in time” labor, people working the service industry who don’t even know if they’re going to work until the day or two before, because the company is bringing them in only when they need them. The 40-hour employee seems to be dying fast in this country.

It’s also obvious that a lot of middle-class families -- even those who still have jobs -- everybody is still afraid. They don’t know if the other shoe is going to drop, if we’re going to see another mini-recession or an increase in unemployment. They may still have a job, but they saw Chrysler workers laid off. They saw people get laid off after restructuring in banks. One of the biggest things we’re fighting now is fear of the unknown. People are afraid to commit and in some cases they’re afraid to give as much as they used to. They’re not sure what’s going to happen next.

You worked with the Rotary Club to salvage that giant flagpole from the old Chrysler plant in Fenton and install it in front of the Circle of Concern. Why was that important?

Koenen: It’s symbolic. It was important to me and to others that there be some memorial honoring all the thousands of people who worked at Chrysler and what that plant meant to this community. That plant basically helped build the Fenton area. It helped create a lot of middle-class jobs and businesses in the Fenton corridor: restaurants, doughnut shops and gas stations. It’s a shame to think that something so basic in this community would just be completely forgotten.

That plaque will be at the base of that flagpole for as long as Circle is here and hopefully that will be a long, long time. I was talking to a couple of [United Auto Worker] people the other day, and they were telling me what a radical change it was in their lives. People who assumed that even with the ups and downs, the plant would be there. Chrysler would be in St. Louis. The thought of the whole operation just disappearing never occurred to anyone.

This is a great symbol of what the recession has done. I still want to call it a depression with a small ‘’d’’ because it went much deeper than recessions I’ve seen before. It was a huge defining moment for this community.

Do you have any political ambitions?

Koenen: I haven’t ruled anything out. I’m still going to find ways to be of service. I’ve been a chairman of the Missouri Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. I’ve been chairman of the West County Chamber of Commerce. I served on the [Metropolitan Sewer District] Rate Commission. I have worked at a level higher than community charity. Nothing is being left out. I am looking forward to finding some new challenges.

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.