Being surrounded by plenty during the holidays inspires almost everyone to give to those less fortunate. But what happens afterward? Representatives from local food distribution agencies remind us that hunger doesn’t end when the holiday decorations come down.

Food Outreach

    “Most of us have never experienced real hunger, but it’s becoming more common,” says Food Outreach executive director Greg Lukeman. “Since the stock market tanked and so many people lost their savings, jobs and insurance, we’re seeing people who never thought they’d need us. We set a record for 2009, with more than 450,000 meals going to clients in need.”

    Food Outreach, founded in 1988, provides groceries, frozen meals, education and nutrition counseling for more than 1,600 men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS or cancer throughout the metro area. Groceries collected during food drives reach an additional 30,000 St. Louisans. “Some are too weak to prepare meals for themselves, much less shop for food,” Lukeman says. “Others are undernourished because they’re poor, or because the disease has made them poor.” The organization also provides home delivery for clients who are too ill to travel or don’t have access to transportation.

    With the exception of student volunteerism, which actually increases in January when school is back in session, donations and volunteers drop after the holidays, Lukeman says. “We try to deal with the situation as creatively as possible—right now, we’re looking into partnering with various financial institutions to do competitive food drives during the first quarter.” The agency also distributes food barrels and tear-off sheets all around town, making it easy to donate canned goods or volunteer.

    “There’s no better New Year’s resolution than to get involved, whether it’s with Food Outreach or any organization that feeds the hungry,” Lukeman says. “It’s the best way to remind yourself that if your belly is full, you’re one of the fortunate ones.”

O.A.S.I.S. Food Pantry

    O.A.S.I.S. Food Pantry, run by volunteers from 17 area churches, serves the needs of St. Charles County residents. “Our client base has increased every year since we started in 1990, but we’ve seen a big leap in the last couple of years,” says executive director Terry Rodewald. “Over the past year alone, the number of people we serve has increased by almost 60 percent.” The agency helped more than 6,000 families in 2010, dispensing more than $600,000 worth of food and other necessities, he adds.

    “We offer a variety of nutritious fresh, frozen and canned foods, as well as basic hygiene items, including soap and shampoo, free of charge to qualified clients,” Rodewald explains. “We also have a thrift store where anyone can obtain basic household items and clothing at a very low cost. All proceeds go to the food pantry.” Donations and volunteers are plentiful during the holiday season, and drop off slightly during the first quarter of the new year, he says. “But summer tends to be tight for us—kids are out of school, so there are fewer food drives, and volunteers and donors leave on vacation.”

        When the going gets tough, O.A.S.I.S. (short for Outreach Assistance Serving Individuals in St. Charles County) relies heavily on community support. “People give not only money and food, but also skills—our buildings were in bad shape until local carpenters, plumbers and roofers donated their time, and area firefighters built a fence for us,” Rodewald says. “We were able to do $200,000 worth of renovations for about $40,000, enabling us to devote more resources to those in need.” The organization’s major fundraiser is a sponsored golf tournament in June. “Giving might come more naturally during the holidays, but we’ve been lucky,” he says. “People tend to keep their heart strings and purse strings open all year round.”

Operation Food Search

    “Hunger never takes a holiday—the need continues 365 days a year,” says executive director Sunny Schaefer. “During November and December, our phone rings off the hook with people offering donations and volunteer support. Then it comes to a standstill at the very time the need is greatest: Heating bills increase in January and February and many families are forced to choose between food and heat.” Support also slows down during the summer, she adds. “Kids who may have been receiving meals at school are now home all day, so grocery bills go up.”

    Operation Food Search, founded in 1981, distributes more than two million pounds of free food to 265 food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters in 31 counties in Missouri and Illinois. The organization also has a nutrition education program that teaches clients how to stretch their food budget while cooking healthy meals. “We feed about 120,000 people every month, and nearly half are children,” Schaefer says. “Demand has gone up anywhere from 20 to 30 percent since the economy slumped in 2008. Unfortunately, we’re seeing many middle-class people who never dreamed they’d need us—people who’ve lost their jobs and homes.”

    Schaefer urges St. Louisans to keep food banks in mind now that the holidays are over. “Hunger is all around us, and few feelings are as satisfying as knowing you’ve helped feed someone in need of a meal.”  LN