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Area food pantries eye proposed federal cuts while struggling to meet current needs

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Canned veggies, soups, tuna and fruit.

Nonperishables like peanut butter, crackers and cereals.

There’s nothing fancy on the "want list" of St. Louis area food pantries: just the basic canned and shelf-stable foods they have always distributed to the region’s hungry families.

What’s different these days is the growing quantity of those foods that is required -- and who needs it -- according to a coalition of anti-poverty groups planning a series of events from Oct. 11 to 18 that they’ve dubbed "St. Louis Hunger Awareness Week.”

Five years since the financial meltdown and four years since economists officially declared the Great Recession over, organizations that work to feed the hungry say that food insecurity is relentless and still growing. 

In August, 915,469 Missourians -- about one in six -- received assistance from SNAP, the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, according to statistics from the Missouri Department of Social Services. That was 25,000 fewer people than a year ago, about a 3 percent drop. At the same time, area food pantries are reporting either continued or increased demand from people seeking assistance from the nonprofit sector.

Cory Eichorn, manager of the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, points to the unevenness of the nation’s economic recovery as the driving force behind the growing numbers of the working poor seeking help from his facility and other area pantries. The Harvey Kornblum pantry now serves more than 7,000 individuals a month.

"We’ve seen a huge surge in the number of people who are accessing the food pantry,’’ he said. "This time last year we were seeing 5,000 individuals a month.’’

Eichorn estimates that about three-fourths of his pantry’s clients are from households in which someone is employed.

"What I see is that the economy may be rebounding, but instead of having a factory job where they made $15 or $20 an hour, the jobs being created are lower-income positions, minimum wage to maybe $12 an hour,’’ he said. "And for those who didn't lose their jobs in the recession, a lot of companies have had pay freezes over the last couple of years. Inflation continues to drive the price of milk and gas up, but that doesn’t mean the paychecks are there. Pay has not kept pace with the cost of living. The new jobs are not of the same quality and dollar values that they were 10 years ago.’’

'We’re struggling to keep up'

About 119,000 residents of St. Louis County and 107,000 St. Louis residents received food stamps in August, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services.

Eichorn said his pantry is helping about 2,000 more people a month than the guidelines suggested by its board, and strained resources have forced it to limit services. New clients must be residents of St. Louis County, although the pantry will continue to serve previous clients who are city residents. Most clients live in north St. Louis County; about 20 percent are city residents.

"The hunger problem is greater now than it has been in the last 10 years, and that’s not going away,’’ Eichorn said. "We’ve seen a decrease in the amount of food that we’re getting. Basically, demand is outpacing supply.’’

To stretch supplies, Eichorn said the pantry has decreased the amount of food given -- from 10 days' worth of groceries to about a week's worth.

The pantry’s two largest suppliers are the St. Louis Area Food Bank and Operation Food Search. The food bank, a member of the Feeding America network, distributes corporate donations and commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Operation Food Search distributes food, including produce and dairy products, donated by local Schnucks, Dierbergs and Aldi stores.

The pantry also accepts cash contributions and donations from food drives held by churches, synagogues, businesses and civic groups. Eichorn said that while need has continued to rise, donations have decreased in recent months, as has food supplied by the USDA.

"We’re struggling to keep up with the change in supply, though the client demand here is as high as it’s ever been,’’ he said.

Eichorn said the pantry welcomes all donations.

"The name of our pantry is the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, but we serve the entire community,'' he said. "And we need donations from all parts of the county, not just the Jewish community. We really love to have food drives at local churches -- Catholic or Baptist or Methodist, it doesn't matter to us. We're a community resource not a Jewish resource."

A tightening safety net

With the food stamp program and other federal entitlement programs facing budget cuts, the hunger awareness campaign comes at a critical time, said Gail Wechsler of the Jewish Community Relations Council, one of the organizations that comprise the Community Against Poverty coalition that is sponsoring the events being held at area schools, churches and organizations.

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut $39 billion from SNAP during the next decade by tightening various eligibility rules.

While the SNAP cuts, which are part of the farm bill, have yet to be voted on by the Senate, the Kansas City Star reports that Missouri is considering another action to cut the number of food stamp beneficiaries in the state. The proposed rule change would allow a waiver to expire that has been in place since 2009; the waiver allows able-bodied unemployed people with no children to qualify for food stamps, despite failing to meet certain requirements. An estimated 60,000 people could be affected by the rule change, with the waiver retained in counties where unemployment is higher than 10 percent. In August, that would have meant three counties: Caldwell, Reynolds and Shannon.

Wechsler said she finds it disappointing that the food stamp program has lost what used to be strong bipartisan support to help needy Americans.

"Now people getting food stamps are being demonized,’’ she said. "I think there’s a lack of education about who it’s affecting, how widespread the issue is. People on food stamps are of all races. Many of them are working folks. This is not about people being lazy and not wanting to work. They don’t want a government handout. These are people who desperately need a safety net in order to feed themselves and their kids.”

The hunger events will include food drives and volunteer opportunities, plus an education component to provide facts about food insecurity and entitlement programs, she said.

"The average weekly payment for SNAP is $31.50, which is very low,’’ Wechsler said. "And people don’t know, for example, that our food pantries are really in bad shape and contemplating having to turn people away.’’

The federal shutdown 

Eichorn said that any cuts to government programs that provide nutrition assistance will continue to stretch the resources of local food pantries.

"A lot of the clients who come through here are gainfully employed or they have legitimate reasons not to have a job: They’re elderly or on Social Security Disability. I would love to be able to say that if clients just found a job they wouldn’t need our services. But the problem is the jobs don’t pay what they used to pay compared to the cost of living,’’ he said.

Ryan Farmer, communications manager for the St. Louis Area Foodbank, said the government shutdown has not affected programs so far, but could in the future. USDA government commodities are continuing to flow through the pipeline, and the foodbank stocks a month’s worth of supplies to fill the boxes of food that it distributes to low-income senior citizens. Although federal funds to operate the programs have been suspended, the foodbank is using reserve funds to keep them going.

“Our hope is that those funds will be reimbursed retroactively once the shutdown is over, but that’s not guaranteed,’’ Farmer said.

He, too, emphasized the impact that cuts to government nutrition programs would place on the nonprofit community to feed the nation’s hungry.

"It’s worsening a problem that’s already bad,’’ he said. “We can’t do it alone. It takes the efforts of everyone working together.”

Food stamp recipients, Aug. 2013        

St. Louis County 118,800

Jackson Co. 118,350              

St. Louis   107,159

Greene County   42,203

Jefferson Co. 26,531             

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.