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Beacon Back Stories: Recession is over, but many are still 'food insecure' in St. Louis area

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Chances are, a university would not be the first location you’d think about if you were setting up a food pantry to assist the needy in the farm belt of the Midwest.

So hats off to a group of enterprising students at the University of Missouri at Columbia who recognized that there were members of their campus community who couldn’t afford to buy food -- and then did something about it. The student-run Tiger Pantry, which opened its doors on campus last fall, has provided free food to 1,300 needy students and employees so far this year.

Tim Lewis, 22, of Sullivan, Mo., who helped organize the pantry, points to some telling numbers: 15,000 Mizzou students qualify for need-based aid and at least 1,000 students can expect less than $1,000 a year in help from their families. In addition, there are staff members in low-wage jobs and graduate students who are paid at or below the poverty level.

By opening a pantry on campus -- “Mizzou Tigers helping Mizzou Tigers” -- the students hoped to cut down on the stigma associated with visiting the community food pantry in Columbia, Lewis said.

I stumbled across the news of the Tiger Pantry while researching a story on an unrelated topic. But it stuck with me because the issue of hunger -- or food insecurity as it is now called -- has been brought to my attention in a number of ways recently.

Several weeks ago, I was invited to attend an informal gathering of media folks to learn about Operation Food Search, a nonprofit that distributes 2 million pounds of free food each month to needy residents in the St. Louis region. Among the presenters was Kate Antonacci of Panera Bread who offered an update on the company’s "meal of shared responsibility” -- a program that allows customers to pay what they can for turkey chili served in a sourdough bread bowl. Since the program began in March, the meal has been ordered more than 10,000 times, Antonacci said.

Food insecurity was also on the agenda at an agribusiness conference that I attended last week at the University of Illinois sponsored by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Topics ranged from ethanol production to food quality, and one session was devoted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hunger-fighting efforts: food stamps and subsidized school lunches.

Since 2007, the rate of food insecurity in the U.S. has increased by one-third, according to USDA research. In 2011, 15 percent of Americans -- 50 million people -- were food insecure. In St. Louis, according to Census Bureau statistics, 135,000 children are at risk.  

The bottom line: The recession may be over, but hunger has not gone away.

Over the next weeks, I will be sharing what I’m learning about food insecurity in our region -- and what's being done about it. In addition to facts and figures, I will be including stories about grassroots efforts: What people are doing to help their neighbors.

If you’d like to share a personal perspective or experience -- or you know about a program that has been effective -- please drop me a line: mdelachleonard@stlbeacon.org

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.