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'Too Many Families Going To Bed Hungry': A Look At Food Insecurity In The St. Louis Region

From left, Julie Pole, Lucinda Perry and Meredith Knopp joined Tuesday's talk show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Roughly 850,000 people are facing food insecurity in the state of Missouri alone – and that includes about 220,000 kids.

“We estimate roughly one in five kids in the state of Missouri [are] hungry or at risk of not knowing where their next meal is going to be coming from,” Operation Food Search’s Lucinda Perry said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air.

Perry, who is director of strategic initiatives for the nonprofit, joined host Don Marsh alongside guests from two other St. Louis-area organizations that focus on addressing food insecurity: Food Outreach and the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

Meredith Knopp, president and CEO of the St. Louis Area Foodbank, noted that the staggering number of Missourians struggling with hunger is also occurring in a “land of plenty” where 70 billion pounds of edible food ended up in landfills last year.

“We have too many children, too many seniors, too many veterans, too many families going to bed hungry all across our region,” Knopp said. “This is not something that is happening in far-off different countries – it’s happening right here in our region locally. People are usually astounded when I tell them that the county with the third-largest food-insecurity population for us is St. Charles County.”

Knopp said her organization last year distributed 43.5 million pounds of food, with 11.6 million pounds of that being fresh produce, to the 26 counties the foodbank serves in the bi-state region.

Operation Food Search seeks to end child food insecurity and family food insecurity, with programs ranging from what Perry described as “afterschool refuel,” to nutrition-education efforts, to “championing change” and looking at the root causes and implications of hunger.

“We can’t be successful at school, at work, within our own family structures,” Perry explained, “if we don’t have the nutrition that we need to for us to be able to be the best that we can be.”

Julie Pole is the executive director of Food Outreach, which provides nutritional services to men, women and children diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or cancer living at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The organization serves nearly 2,000 clients a year with everything from food and private, dietetic counseling to communal meals once a week and cooking classes.

Food Outreach relies on volunteers, Pole said, to complete its work.

“We would probably close our doors in about two days [without volunteers] – we’re completely dependent on the work of about 700 volunteers a year,” she said.

When Marsh remarked on the large number of people, even in 21st-century America, who are dealing with food insecurity, Pole noted that privilege is present in “the idea that we can eat what we want when we want.”

“Food insecurity points to something that all of our team members and volunteers understand profoundly relates to – I can state it in the positive – [to] privilege and access in one way, and hunger relates enormously to being under-resourced and having a lack of access in a lot of different ways,” she said.

Among a variety of challenges the three guests discussed were the issues that often surround transportation – particularly among people living in food deserts, areas that lack grocery stores, and other ways to access nutritious food.

Perry said she and her colleagues at Operation Food Search hear about such challenges often, and Knopp said the St. Louis Area Foodbank works to meet people where they are on a regular basis.

“We drive out to these areas where those food desserts exist, where there might be problems with public transportation [as well as] private transportation,” she explained. “So we go out to these parking lots with our volunteers and our staff, and we literally load cars for a few hours every day.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Jon Lewis give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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