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Food Pantries Stretch to Meet the Need

As the economy continues to lag, food pantries see the need go up as contributions and volunteers are harder to come by.

The biggest food pantry donations of the year have come and gone with the holidays, but the need to help feed the hungry is year-round, and in past years, growing.

Hundreds of area food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens serve people directly. They get their food from various sources, and the biggest of those are the two food area food banks.

and The St. Louis Area Food Bank work with donors like General Mills, taking in truckloads of food, which is distributed to outlets in the metro area and beyond.

Operation Food Search serves 130,000 people through 265 outlets each month, according to executive director, Sunny Schaefer. She said 30-40 percent more people are coming to them for help.

“It really stated at the beginning of the downturn of the economy, and it’s just not changing,” she said

The St. Louis Area Food Bank occupies 92,000 square feet in a distribution center near Bridgeton takes in truckloads of food from large donors like General Mills, and distributes it to food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens.  

In 2009, the year of a national study, the St. Louis Food Bank helped 261,000 people in 26 counties, an increase of 35 percent in four years. It served 101,000 children, a 62 percent increase, also in four years.

At the local level, food pantries have seen the need increase dramatically too, some more than others.

The St. Louis Salvation Army collected 100,000 cans of food in its Wehrenberg Theatres Cans Film Festival event in December, but Bill Becker, a Salvation Army spokesman, said supplies dwindle quickly.

An O’Fallon food pantry went from serving 45 people a month to 450, Becker said. That kind of story isn’t unusual.

The serves a large part of central and western St. Louis County. Its food pantry normally serves 60 to 100 families once a week on Wednesdays, but could serve more, if more people knew about it, Major Kris Wood said.

“The system is not built to withstand the number of people in the system,” he said. “We have to go outside the system and help as many people as we can, giving so we can meet the basic needs.” 

In University City, the Agape Food Pantry, has gone from serving 100 to 400 families a month in the last year, and recently nearby pantries have closed, which has increased the load.

“Just in the last couple of months, three government agencies have closed,” said Rollo Johnson, volunteer, and pastor of the , the location of the pantry. “That got us 400 new seniors for our monthly food pantry–just seniors alone.”

There’s no room for storage at the pantry so they pay $300 a month to store the food off-site. That’s money that could be better spent elsewhere, Johnson said. The shelter now helps twice the number of families as it did a year ago.

“We’re straining,” he said. “We need a bigger place. Right now we’re working out of a fellowship hall in a basement of a church, and it’s a struggle for space.”

Bethany Prange, spokesperson for the Salvation Army, said across the board, their agencies are telling them they are getting more than they can handle. “A lot of the people have never had to turn to a food pantry for help before.”

The Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, which serves the North County area, is one of the outlets served by the two food banks.

“The need is absolutely year-round,” Donald Meissner, Community Outreach Coordinator, said. “When people are on vacation in July and August, there’s still a bunch of people are still lining up to get food.”  

In St. Charles, the Oasis Food Pantry works with 17 churches. Each church holds the pantry open once in a month. Executive director Director Terry Rodewald, said they helped about 1,100 families in 2002, which increased to 7,104 families in 2011.

“In the last three years it’s increased about 900–l000 each year,” Rodewald said. “We look for an increase this year because the economy isn’t much better.”

“A lot of pantries rely on a limited number of donors, and they don’t develop it,” he said. “In our 22 years we have never had to turn anybody away. God provides very well for us through the community.”

The isn’t doing as well. It serves about 275 people a week from Arnold, Imperial and Fenton, and is staffed entirely by volunteers.

“The need is up, greater than I’ve ever seen it,” manager Kathy Flanigan said.

She’s the demand is so great that she’s had to schedule people families to come every other week instead of weekly. “I was up to 150 families a week, which was more than the volunteers could handle in a day,” she said.

She’s looking forward to the Postal Carrier food drive in May, but until then, she’ll put an ad in the paper or go to local schools if the pantry runs low. The National Association of Letter Carriers organizes a nationwide “Stamp Out Hunger” food drive. Nationwide, last year the drive collected 70.6 million pounds of nonperishable food to be distributed.

, in Fenton, tries to provide balanced meals to clients at least twice a month, but their donor base is all volunteer, and it’s waning, just as the need is growing. Their roster has gone from 269 families served, up to 327 in the past year, and a family can mean up to eight or nine.

“All of us are experiencing an increase in client requests because the economy is still going downhill,” said Mary Hettenhausen, assistant daily operations manager. “It hasn’t even bottom-lined yet.

“I really and truly have a problem telling our clients that we can’t help them,” she said.

The donates space for a food pantry that serves 100 to 115 families a month from what is basically a large closet. Audrey Bell, the director and chief volunteer, said food isn’t going to save anyone. She said they’re just trying to lend a hand.

Major Wood at the Maplewood Salvation Army does his best to help, under the current conditions too.

“There are times when we don’t have food,” he said. “We can buy it and have a little bit to give them. We don’t get overwhelmed by the huge need, and just do what we can for these people at this moment.”

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