One in seven kids in St. Louis County is living in poverty, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the city, that number skyrockets to a staggering 40 percent. That means that a huge portion of those served by area food pantries are children, and their need only gets more profound when school closes for the summer, taking away their most stable source of balanced meals.
Circle of Concern
In 1967, a group of people from West County parishes got together to decide what they could do to combat poverty. The answer was Circle of Concern. The nonprofit feeds the hungry in an area that stretches through Fenton, Eureka and the Parkway and Rockwood school districts, says pantry director Sada Lindsey. It also helps in any other way possible, from helping people meet utilities bills to a scholarship program, she adds.
The food pantry feeds about 2,000 people per month, Lindsey says. “We want them to be able to have complete, nutritious, healthy meals. We purchase fresh fruit and vegetables, milk, chicken, ground beef, and try to give them a week’s worth of groceries to supplement their other food.” During the summer, the food pantry adds its kid bag program, providing extra food to children who are hungry. “Most of the kids use the free- and reducedprice school lunch program, and in the summer they don’t have access to that.” The kid bags include things like cereal, mac ’n’ cheese, peanut butter and jelly, 100 percent juice, and other kid-friendly foods, along with items like sidewalk chalk and bubbles. Of the 25,000 people served by Circle of Concern last year, more than 10,000 were children, Lindsey adds.
While there has been an increase in need ever since the recession—Lindsey notes a 17 percent increase in clients for the first quarter of this year over last year—there is hope. “We are hearing from a lot of our clients that they are getting jobs. But we still are seeing a great need.” She adds that providing help would not be possible without many dedicated donors. “If we put in our newsletter that we’re out of peanut butter, people show up to help— whether it’s with a jar or a truckload.”
Operation Food Search
Operation Food Search collects and distributes more than 2 million pounds of food each month, through some 250 partner organizations, says executive director Sunny Schaefer. The food is donated mainly by industry partners such as grocery stores, manufacturers, bakeries and restaurants—almost all of them local, Schaefer says. “If you look at the growth of stores like Schnucks and Dierbergs over the years, we can attribute that directly to our growth,” she notes.
The nonprofit has three programs that directly focus on kids. The first, Operation Backpack, provides backpacks each Friday to 25 area schools. Each backpack includes two proteins, cereal, shelf-stable milk, a can of vegetables and a snack, which helps the children and their families through the weekend. “The response we get from schools is that this is extraordinarily helpful for these kids, many of whom are in dire circumstances. It’s a program that these kids really come to depend on,” Schaefer says. A second program, Cooking Matters, is taught at schools and after-school programs, showing kids simple recipes for nutritious food that they can prepare themselves. “It gives a good foundation for healthy eating habits,” Schaefer says.
A third program that’s just getting off the ground is the No Kid Hungry Campaign, a partnership with the national advocacy group Share Our Strength. The goal is to make sure that all families who are eligible for government programs like WIC, SNAP, free or reduced meals at school, or after-school programs, are aware of the programs and enroll in them. “There’s still a stigma and embarrassment that surrounds hunger, so we help them overcome the challenges to make sure all children have access to healthy food,” Schaefer says.
Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry
Things have never been busier at Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, says community outreach coordinator Donald Meissner. The organization is serving 1,200 families per month, which totals to approximately 5,000 people. “The vast majority of people we serve have young children,” he says. “Our mission is to help feed them on a month-to-month basis, but also to move them from having need to not having that need.”
Part of the reason the food pantry can meet that goal, Meissner says, is its affiliation with Jewish Family & Children’s Services, and the many other services offered by sister groups. Close partnerships with donors also is key, he notes. “We get a lot of stuff coming in and out, and the turnaround has got to be quick,” he notes. If produce comes in from a grocery store that is near its sell-by date, “it’s up to us to pick it up in a timely fashion and distribute it as quickly as possible.” That means the organization relies heavily on both employees and staff to pick up, sort through and distribute food efficiently. “Voluneers pack bags with canned foods, boxes, tomato sauce, pasta; and on top of that, the day the food goes out, we add what we have from the fresh department, like produce, bread and frozen meat.”
Adding to the buzz at Harvey Kornblum are plans for a new, larger location, where an opening party will be held in August, Meissner says. “It’s in the same neighborhood, which is very important for us,” he notes. The new digs should greatly improve the organization’s efficiency and effectiveness, he adds. “You can’t get a wholesale price on food if you can’t buy enough of it. We want to operate as efficiently as possible.”