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This Is Ferguson: Church Food Pantry Doing Its 'Little Bit Of Good'

Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

A narrow hallway in the parish center at St. Stephen’s and The Vine Church in Ferguson is crammed full of good intentions: cans of corn and green beans, tuna and soup, bottles of water, boxes of macaroni and cheese.

Donations have been pouring into the little volunteer food pantry housed at the Episcopal church on North Clay Avenue since a local TV station mentioned it on the news. People have come from all over St. Louis, from Fenton and Alton and Belleville to drop off canned goods they’ve collected in food drives for Ferguson held at businesses, universities and churches.

Others have come on their own, pulling into the church parking lot unannounced, with the trunks and back seats of their cars loaded with food. A box of diapers -- donated by someone, somewhere -- arrived the other day by UPS.

It is just over two miles from the church to the street in front of Canfield Green Apartments, where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, on Aug. 9. 

The neighborhood surrounding St. Stephen’s is peaceful and green, the lawns dotted with “I Love Ferguson” signs. It can seem a world away from the headline news of West Florissant Avenue, where peaceful protests turned violent and police donned riot gear and shot tear gas into the crowds. Here, volunteers are hard at work, sorting and lugging and packaging -- trying to be helpful with sacks of groceries and smiles for residents who were caught up in the turmoil.  

The pantry, which relies on private donations, usually assists between 200 and 300 families a month. Since Brown’s death, volunteers have been serving twice that number. The pantry has also been acting as a clearinghouse, sending much of the food and water that’s been dropped off here to other pantries and distribution points in Ferguson. The handful of volunteers from several Ferguson churches who normally run this operation have been joined by new faces  -- members of churches from across St. Louis and by neighbors of St. Stephen’s who come by to pitch in.

“A lot of people just show up,’’ says Jerry Benner, whose family has been volunteering at the pantry for 20 years.

His wife Ruth says that bringing food is what people do in troubled times.

“I think it’s similar to when you have a friend who has a death in the family and you take food to their house,’’ she says. “This is just some little gesture that people can make.‘’

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The Rev. Steve Lawler

A Growing Awareness   

The Rev. Steve Lawler, who’s been rector of St. Stephen’s since 2001, says many of the people being served are coming to the pantry for the first time. Their need is great, he says. Some lost income because their workplaces closed for a time because of the looting; even a temporary closure is hard on people working for minimum wage and living paycheck to paycheck. When schools delayed opening, families who depend on federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches needed food for their kids.

Lawler says the pantry volunteers are a dedicated bunch.

“People who show up here get hospitality,’’ he says. “You saw the man helping people carry food to their cars. They want to help feed people, and they also want to be gracious to people who are not having an easy time. It’s been inspiring to watch.’’

Like many in Ferguson, Lawler talks about the diversity and strength of community in the city of 21,000 where the population is about two-thirds black and one-third white. He points to the many organizations, neighborhood associations, church groups and sports leagues, where black and white residents work together. St. Stephen’s has a multiracial congregation, he says, with families from different zip codes and socioeconomic backgrounds.

But the shooting of Michael Brown and the protests that followed have raised a new awareness that not all residents of Ferguson share in those community relationships, he said. “This has really called attention to how much that distance exists and how different people’s experience of Ferguson is -- and that it’s not as close-knit as many of us who are involved in the community had thought.”

Lawler says it came as no surprise to his congregation that Ferguson has poor residents, or that they have struggled more and more in recent years. The pantry saw an increase in need starting in late 2007, when the Great Recession took hold, driving unemployment and foreclosures in the city.

“Most of us in the community have seen that there’s more and more poverty and less and less opportunity,” Lawler said.  “But I think the depth of it might be a surprise to many.”

"Suffering In Silence" 

According to 2012 census data, the median household income in Ferguson is about $37,500; it is higher for white householders than black householders. About 14 percent of Ferguson's population is unemployed. In the past year, about 22 percent had income below the poverty line.

* The proportion of households that receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- food stamps -- is about 22 percent, or one in five.

* A high concentration of food stamp recipients -- 8,035 people -- live in the 63136 zip code, which includes part of the city that juts off to the east. It is a pocket of poverty that includes Canfield Green and other apartment complexes located off West Florissant Avenue, plus parts of Jennings. In the 63135 zip code, which includes the largest part of Ferguson, including the downtown and historic areas, there are 2,413 food stamp recipients, according to statistics from the Missouri Department of Social Services.

“A lot of people just aren’t doing well,’’ says Glenn Koenen, who serves as chairman of the hunger task force of the Missouri Association of Social Welfare.

Koenen is a retired director of The Circle of Concern food pantry that serves western St. Louis County and has been monitoring the state’s monthly food stamp statistics for more than 30 years.

Poor people still aren’t feeling the economic recovery of the nation’s thriving stock market, he says. The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs – including thousands lost when Ford and Chrysler closed auto plants in St. Louis – have not been replaced. Instead, people are working service jobs that often pay minimum wage.

“A lot of people who aren’t doing well are suffering in silence. Then, we’ve got situations like Ferguson where all the pent-up emotion hits. And people act surprised. I don’t think we should be surprised,’’ Koenen said.

A well-publicized reportby Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution pointed to the fact that social service resources in Ferguson – and the local government -- didn’t keep pace with dramatic shifts in the racial and economic makeup of the city:

* In 1980, Ferguson was 85 percent white; by 2012, it was 67 percent black.

* In less than 15 years -- from 2000 to 2012 -- the city’s poor population doubled, with one in four residents living below the federal poverty line. ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012).

* The average earnings of employed Ferguson residents fell by one-third, when adjusted for inflation, while the number of households using federal housing vouchers climbed from roughly 300 to more than 800.  

Like Ferguson, many suburban areas in the U.S. that have growing poverty are characterized by small, fragmented municipalities, Kneebone said. Ferguson is one of 91 jurisdictions in St. Louis County.

She concluded that, “None of this means that there are 1,000 Fergusons-in-waiting, but it should underscore the fact that there are a growing number of communities across the country facing similar, if quieter, deep challenges every day.’’

Canned Goods And Justice

Lawler says that churches in Ferguson are answering the community’s many needs by focusing on particular areas. For St. Stephen’s, that focus is food.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon
Rosalyn Carter

For guidance, he looks to the philosophy of cleric Desmond Tutu, who fought apartheid in South Africa: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

At St. Stephen’s, that little bit of good has meant providing sacks of food that can feed a family of four for 24 hours. This past Tuesday, the pantry gave out 100 sacks that included: one box of honey oat cereal, two cans of vegetables, two cans of beans, one jar of peanut butter, two packages of macaroni and cheese, one can of fruit, two cans of soup, one can of tuna, a box of gelatin, a box of crackers, a bar of soap and two rolls of toilet paper.

Lawler said the pantry volunteers are discussing future efforts, but for now it is open on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. People can come once a month.

Many who came last Tuesday said it was their first visit to the pantry. Some talked about the impact of the last few weeks but did not want to be identified.

“It’s a mess,” said one man, shaking his head.

Mary Allison offered to talk to a reporter because she wants people to know about the good work the pantry is doing. She said she lives near St. Stephen's and was hoping to get canned goods to supplement the food she is able to buy for her family with food stamps. This was her first visit to St. Stephen’s; she tries to avoid going to food pantries.

The last weeks have been rough, she said.

“I think this is a wonderful thing the church is doing for the people in Ferguson,'' she said. "I was all upset.  The kids have been upset. I was scared that it’s going to be a big war -- and it’s still not over with yet.”

Rosalyn Carter, who lives in a neighborhood off West Florissant said she had been to St. Stephen’s in the past and praised the church for not requiring people to deal with a lot of red tape.

“It’s once a month, and if you’re hungry, you’re hungry,” Carter said. “It’s just one sack, but you might have meat and no sides, and this is the sides.’’

The toilet paper comes in handy, too, she said, laughing. “If you’ve got kids, you’re gonna run out of toilet paper.”

Carter said she is praying that things will get better in Ferguson.

“It’s in God’s hands now,’’ she said. “He’s the author. He knows what he’s doing. He already has a solution, we just don’t know what it is.”

Carter has lived in Ferguson for 10 years and she likes it here -- though she says her husband has been targeted by the police for doing nothing wrong.

She said the protests are not just about Michael Brown.

“I talk to a lot of boys,’’ she said. “It’s not a Michael Brown thing, it’s just that Michael Brown was the last straw. This stems back to the ‘60s. Older people my age have just been holding it in. It’s not a black and white thing -- and that’s what they need to realize. It’s a justice thing. It’s a first amendment thing.’’

What Can You Do? 

The outpouring of food and donations for Ferguson has been positive, says Frank Finnegan of the St. Louis Area Foodbank, but he notes that economic conditions haven’t changed in the three weeks since Brown’s death.

Food boxes are stacked this summer at the food pantry at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Ferguson.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon
Several churches participate in the small volunteer pantry that operates out of the parish center at St. Stephen's.


“The fact that 76 percent of students in Ferguson are eligible for the reduced lunch program was true the day before the shooting, and the day after. So the need is there. And has been there. Maybe now people are more aware of it,” Finnegan said.

As part of the emergency response, the foodbank increased distributions to its partner agencies -- food pantries that serve north St. Louis County, including Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Catholic Church in Ferguson. Food and bottled water were provided to the temporary community resource center organized by the United Way at the Dellwood Recreation Center.

The foodbank will also administer a national online fund drive that raised $155,000 to feed children in Ferguson, Finnegan said. The campaign was started by a schoolteacher in North Carolina. With that money, the foodbank has already purchased food for agencies serving families in the Ferguson-Florissant School District and is working to set up a food pantry in a Ferguson school.

Finnegan noted that the foodbank had also provided some emergency assistance to families of police officers through the St. Louis Police Wives' Association.

"I have no doubt that we were probably feeding people on both sides of that line -- some of the protesters and some of the police families,'' he said. "If you're hungry, we're going to feed you.'' 

Operation Food Search also stepped up efforts in Ferguson and north St. Louis County, says director Sunny Schaefer. And she, too, commended St. Louisans for making individual contributions and local corporations and universities, for sponsoring food drives.

“When these things happen you do get a lot of people in the community who want to help. It’s wonderful to see that pulling together,’’ she said. “Hunger affects so many people and a situation like Ferguson brings it to the forefront once again that in our community and throughout our country, more than 12 percent of all people are living at or below the poverty line and are at risk of hunger.’’

Koenen said that there is tremendous pressure on nonprofit organizations -- many of them churches – that feed hungry people in the St. Louis region. In July, 107,756 residents of St. Louis County and just under 100,000 residents of St. Louis City received food stamps. The average individual food stamp benefit in Missouri is about $4 a day, or less than $1.30 per meal.

He worries that the focus on Ferguson could mean a decrease in donations to nonprofits that serve the poor in other communities in the St. Louis region.

Lawler said the needs of the community have come into focus and that people are working together to address issues of justice – and economic justice.

“It is a process of healing but also of developing a way and a world that doesn’t include the same kind of lost opportunities, lost people, lost situations,’’ he said.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon
Ruth Benner

There is much work to be done, and he encourages people to volunteer  -– to pick an area of need they know and care about -- and to make a personal contribution.

“For this to happen in Ferguson -- at first it was a surprise,’’ he said. “But it’s not a surprise because when the experience that people have tells them that they’re not in a friendly position with police officers, they’re not in a friendly position with authority, that there are people not wishing them well from the get-go – then, of course, it’s time for people to express how unjust that is. But I hope people will understand that Ferguson isn’t coming to a conceptual place of ‘let’s talk about race.’ People in Ferguson already know and have fun with and cry with, and pray with, and work with, people who are not of their race.’’

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.