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Struggling Families Pay It Forward

Sandra is battling breast cancer. But she is also battling hunger.

Last week, she skipped a chemotherapy treatment just so she could go to the Chester Area Christian Food Pantry to pick up the food she and her husband so desperately need.

And yet, Sandra doesn’t expect to take without giving back.


Sandra and her husband have a lush garden, so every time she comes to pick up food from the pantry, she brings in bags full of tomatoes and other vegetables.

She is just one of the many people in this small southern Illinois community who share what little they have with others in need.

Food pantry staff tell countless stories of families in need who bring in homegrown fruits and vegetables or handmade items, hoping to share their own bounties with other families in need.

Yesterday, at a food fair in Chester, Ill., Foodbank staff watched nearly 180 of these families in need wait patiently in line for hours for their share of food.


Some families lined up as early at 5 a.m., knowing the Foodbank truck wouldn’t arrive with food until after 10 a.m. They waited, in their cars, without complaint for nearly six hours.

This is a testament to how much these families truly need the food.

By 1 p.m., the nearly 20,000 pounds of food we delivered to Chester was gone, divided up amongst the families.

Every family I spoke with expressed gratitude for the food, and said without it, they would not have enough to eat.

They were also quick to tell me that when they get food from the pantry, if there is any extra or anything they can’t use, they share it with their neighbors in need.

Perhaps it is the common ground of hard times that motivates families in need to help one another. Or perhaps, they help each other when they can, simply because they want to pay it forward.

See some moving pictures from the Chester food fair here.

By Bethany Prange

Social Media Specialist

We Want To Hear From You

Have you ever needed help providing food for your family? Have you received food from a food pantry? Have you ever used food stamps?


If you answered yes to any of these questions – even if your experience was years ago – we’d love to hear from you. We use these firsthand accounts to help educate the world about hunger in the St. Louis area. Hearing a personal story from a real individual who has struggled to put food on the table can be eye-opening for those who have never experienced it.

These stories help us spread hunger awareness, and encourage donors large and small to keep giving. In addition, your story can help erase the stereotypes that people associate with food pantries and food stamps. Please help us show the world that the folks in the pantry line are real, hard-working people who are doing their best to provide for their families.

It’s easy to share a thought, comment or personal story – your story is a powerful tool in fighting hunger and its root causes.

If you’re not sure what to write about, you could tell us a story about your experience with any of the following issues:

  • Accessing emergency food
  • Losing your job in this tough economy
  • Having trouble making ends meet
  • Working for wages that don’t support your family
  • Difficulty with medical bills
  • Difficulty affording rent
  • Being homeless
  • Being hurt by predatory banking, lending or business practices
  • How you’ve benefited from community food systems like farm-to-school and community garden programs
  • Difficulty accessing food or services where you live
  • Living with a disability and waiting for SSI or SSDI benefits
  • Challenges you’ve encountered as an Oregon or Clark County farmer
  • A time when cash assistance helped you get back on your feet
  • How you’ve benefited from SNAP (food stamps), child nutrition programs (WIC, school breakfast and lunch, summer food, etc.) or WIC/senior farmers market coupons
  • A memorable experience you had as an St. Louis Area Foodbank advocate or volunteer
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We do not have to use your full name if we share the story, but we do need to verify the stories. For this purpose, please include in your email or message the following information: full name, city of residence, email or phone number, and name of pantry you used if applicable.

For more information please contact Maddie Smith, Communications Coordinator, at 314-227-3728 or

Client Story: Gwen Gore


Gwen Gore began volunteering at her neighborhood food pantry three years ago, long before she ever needed help herself.

Gwen, 51, worked full-time as a clerical worker at a St. Louis hospital for the last 11 years, so she could only devote a few hours a month to helping hand out food at Jeremiah’s Food Pantry in East St. Louis.

When she suddenly lost her job at the hospital, Gwen decided to commit herself to volunteering until she could find another job. She now volunteers at Jeremiah’s Food Pantry every week.

“I’m a member of this church and they needed help,” Gwen says. “This is a good opportunity for me to give back.”

The pantry is open the first Thursday of the month, and every Wednesday after that.

On one chilly Thursday in February, we met at the pantry, where the St. Louis Area Foodbank had just delivered a truckload of frozen chickens and fresh mushrooms, broccoli and collard greens.

Dozens of families in need flocked to the pantry, excited to find fresh vegetables and meat.

“We had more people than we’ve ever had last month,” Gwen says. “Today, we’ve had 100 people since we opened at 2 p.m.”

Read the full story…

Fresh Beginnings – At One Time or Another, Everyone Needs a New Start

Transitional Housing

The St. Louis Foodbank operates a Transitional Housing Program for people moving from a local shelter into their own residence.

We know it’s hard to scrape together the funds to pay a month’s rent, not to mention the utility down payments, security fees, etc.

To help with those one time additional costs, we provide a 30-day supply of food and other household items. Everyone needs a little help at some point, or at least some guidance.

Judy and I created our own transitional housing program with our daughter. After graduating from Missouri State University, Shawn accepted a job as a travel director.

The position has taken Shawn to many exotic places, but it also required that she spend the vast majority of her time out of town. Therefore, there wasn’t much sense in moving her into an apartment.

Loving parents that Judy and I are, we told her she was welcome to live with us but she’d have to pay rent. The Finnegan family transitional housing program had two options.

Shawn’s first option was to pay $250 each month and her loving parents would thank her very much and spend it on meals, movies and entertainment. Her second option was to pay $500 each month and we would return the entire sum whenever she decided to move out.

Shawn paid us rent for three years before an overpowering urge to flee drove her out and now has her paying rent to complete strangers.

Looking back, I’m happy about two things. First, Shawn paid the higher sum. Second, Judy collected the monthly rent payments and dutifully put them in the bank. Eighteen months after moving out of her parents’ home, Shawn bought her own house with the down payment from our transitional housing program.

Judy and I are in an enviable position. We have college educations, we both work and we’re able to live within our means. We have one child who successfully navigated the tumultuous years from 16 to 25. That seems to be the decade when parents everywhere pray their children don’t make one really stupid decision that could forever change their lives for the worse.

Transitional Housing Family

We know that circumstances beyond our control happen every day. A serious illness, a car accident, a lost job – so many things could start a spiral down that suddenly gets out of control.

Shelters are full of people who fell into that downward spiral. They certainly never planned on being in a shelter.

I’m thankful the Foodbank’s Transitional Housing Program can be there to help these folks down on their luck; just as I’m thankful Judy and I were able to help Shawn.

Everyone – at one time or another – needs a chance for a new start…a fresh beginning.



Frank Finnegan
St. Louis Area Foodbank President and CEO Frank Finnegan first shared a version of this story in the March 2013 Tablesetter newsletter.

One Father’s Story Inspires a Commitment to Hunger Relief

Since I have worked at the St. Louis Area Foodbank for more than 15 years, there are countless moments that have truly made my job matter to me.

I was the hired in 1997 as the Foodbank’s first-ever communications coordinator. Right off the bat I knew I wanted to learn more about our member agencies and the clients they serve.

Visiting agencies and getting to know these individuals helped me solidify the message I was asking the community to hear. It worked – so I continued visiting agencies often. I still make agency visits to this day.

Over the years, I have met dozens of people who have inspired me in my nonprofit work at the Foodbank. But there is one moment in particular that always comes to the forefront in my mind.

I met Gene during a lunch-hour visit to a soup kitchen in St. Charles. Gene was a middle-aged man who stopped by the soup kitchen for a meal when he could get away from the jobsite long enough to eat.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. . .

“Jobsite? If he has a job, then why on earth is he at a soup kitchen?”

Here’s why: Gene worked in the construction business, a fact that was evident from his work clothes and the tape measure on his belt. Despite his job, this man had been in need of help for the two months since his wife left.

They were a family of four, Gene said, and seemingly happy, until “she just left” one day. The note explained that she was sorry, and that she was leaving to pursue another life with someone else.

Gene was floored. He had had no idea his wife was unhappy.

To make matters worse, not only did she leave Gene and her two children, she also took the modest funds the family had saved up in their joint checking account.

Gene, as most of us would, began to struggle trying to maintain family expenses. He said he realized he “needed some help after a few weeks.”

As I talked with Gene that day, he told me that he had yet to accept any offers of help from the agency’s food pantry.

He teared up a bit when he said, “I can still feed my kids. I don’t want anyone else taking care of my kids.”

I disagreed with Gene about his unwillingness to accept additional help, but as a father myself, I understood his point.

His income provided enough to maintain some expenses, but when there wasn’t enough money to go round, food was the first item to get cut.

Gene was struggling to feed his children, so, feeding himself became his lowest priority. Lunch at the soup kitchen was his lone meal of the day.

This lunch discussion with Gene has remained a vivid reminder to me why the Foodbank – and the work we do – is so very important. Until things could right themselves, his family needed someone willing to help.

Soup Kitchen

Photo: Feeding America“Across the nation, families in need rely on soup kitchens for a hot meal”

Gene is just one example of the more than 57,100 people helped each week by the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

As for Gene, he did eventually accept help for his kids through our partner agency’s pantry.

Fortunately, Gene ultimately got to a point where he no longer needed lunch from the soup kitchen.  I was happy to know that Gene was able to get back on his feet.

But, I’m equally as happy knowing that should the need arise again, the soup kitchen remains open for lunch.


Matt Dace
Matt Dace is the senior vice president at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.



A Grateful Survivor – Giving Back for His Blessings


Daisy and Duke, two white Bichons, scurry around the apartment, jumping on chairs and chasing toys.

Their owner, Charles “Charlie” Pringle, warns them to settle down, but even his sternest voice doesn’t seem to calm the pups – an excitable brother and sister he adopted from a shelter. Charlie, 60, can’t help but smile.

The trio lives in a handsome apartment in a senior complex in De Soto, Mo. The tall ceilings, modern appliances and antique décor suggest a luxurious lifestyle.

But in reality, most of Charlie’s most prized possessions were acquired earlier in his life, back when things were easier.

Charlie was born in Morgantown, W.V. His father worked in the coal mines there, but moved the family to Warren, Ohio, when Charlie was just two years old.

The kidney problems meant that Charlie wasn’t as big or as strong as the other boys his age. Growing up, he was frequently bullied by the other children.

At age 11, Charlie’s mother took him to a different doctor who announced that the boy would only live two more years. Seeking help, his parents sent him to the Cleveland Clinic. There, they determined that Charlie suffered from a hereditary kidney disease called Alport Syndrome.

Despite his illness, Charlie managed to graduate from high school and enroll at Kent State University, where he studied fine art.

Charlie moved to St. Louis, intending to finish his degree at St. Louis University. He first took a job as an assistant warehouse manager at Target, and later worked at Creve Coeur Camera.

In the early 1980s, Charlie was working at a small electronics and computer accessories company, when he got sick once more. He was forced to begin dialysis at Barnes Hospital.

“I would work all day and go on dialysis,” Charlie says. “I wouldn’t get out until 1 a.m. after dialysis.”

This routine went on for a year and a half before a kidney became available in 1989. He underwent the kidney transplant, receiving the kidney from a donor who also provided organs to four other patients.

Despite the odds, Charlie has been living with his kidney for 23 years. “Every day I get up and I thank God for being alive,” Charlie says.

Just a month after the transplant, Charlie was back at work. Mounting medical bills meant an ongoing fight with his insurance company.

Ultimately, he was fired because the small company could not afford to insure him.

Charlie sent out 285 resumes for 200 different jobs, but each time he came in for an interview, he had to fill out his health history – a disclosure that often meant he was passed over.

“I was out of work for almost a year,” Charlie says. “I had to use charge cards to survive.”

Even when he got a new job as a sales consultant at an appliance parts center, the looming debt was overwhelming.

During his time at the parts center, Charlie worked with some of the company’s biggest clients. For 14 years, he devoted his life to the company until one day, he was abruptly let go because of his pre-existing health condition.

The sudden job loss sent Charlie into a tailspin of despair. Physical and emotional problems were overwhelming.

In 2001, his doctor demanded that Charlie stop trying to find a job. He filed for disability, but still hoped to find work.

His 401K and savings were depleted, and it took years for his disability payments to come through.

Charlie eventually moved to a place in the country in De Soto. There, while he struggled to pay medical bills with little income, he was able to rely on the De Soto Food Pantry for food assistance. He insisted on volunteering at the pantry to earn his keep.

“I don’t want to just come in and get it,” Charlie says. “I take care of the USDA when it comes in.”

When the bills became too much and he began to fall due to neuropathy in his legs, Charlie moved to the senior apartments in De Soto.

“I’m able to afford the rent and the utilities,” Charlie says.

He continues to spend $1,300 a month on medications for his kidney disease, and thousands more on trips to the doctors in St. Louis, lab work and tests. Thankfully, he does receive some help from the Missouri Kidney Foundation.

“With the government it is really scary to not know of what changes might occur,” Charlie says. “With the help and kindness of the Disability Resource Association (DRA) they try to make your life not so bad.”

Charlie has cut everything extra from his life – no magazines, no eating out, no using gas to visit friends. He receives $16 in food stamps a month, and for most of his other food, relies on the De Soto Food Pantry.

He gets most of his clothes from thrift stores and often shares food with his neighbors at the senior apartments to make it stretch.

Like most of the people who get food at the pantry, Charlie is immensely grateful.

“It’s made me realize that there are a lot of people out there who are in need,” Charlie says.

Bethany Prange
Bethany Prange is the communications coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

A Childhood Memory of Food Assistance



My father used to be a pressman.  When I was very young, he was laid off of work for six months.

My parents managed their money well, but since my father was the sole breadwinner in the family, the savings dried up quickly.

I remember the night my mom explained food stamps and “government cheese” to me while we were having dinner.

When I spoke with my father this past weekend about this time in our lives, he told me that it was organizations like the St. Louis Area Foodbank that helped our family through that difficult time.

The Foodbank provides USDA product, or government-supplied food.  This food, such as green beans and peanut butter, helped keep us all fed when we fell on hard times.

Now, as an adult, it is my privilege to volunteer with the Foodbank. I am a part of their Social Media Avengers, where it is my honor to promote the Foodbank’s mission and work via social media.

As individuals, there are many ways we can support the St. Louis Area Foodbank:


In 2012, I was honored to volunteer at a food distribution event the Foodbank held in Warren County. Within two hours, we loaded more than 30,000 pounds of food into the cars of families in need.

It didn’t matter that it was one of the hottest days of the summer – that day will leave an impression on my soul forever.

It perhaps meant even more to me to know that I was helping others the way food assistance once helped my family.

I can attest that the St. Louis Area Foodbank brings hope to St. Louis. How has St. Louis Area Foodbank changed your life?

Jason Robison

  Jason Robison is a solution architect for a local IT firm in St. Louis and is a member of St. Louis Area Foodbank’s Social Media Avengers team. You can follow Jason on Twitter at @bigjstl.

From Food Pantry Client to Foodbank Manager – A story of hope

Darren at his desk

Fifteen years ago, Darren Smith found himself between jobs, struggling to provide for his growing family.

To help put food on the table, Darren sought help from the Sharing Our Sources food pantry in Bellefontaine Neighbors, a St. Louis Area Foodbank partner agency.

At the time, the Share Our Sources pantry was run by elderly volunteers who struggled to keep up with the demands of running the agency.

Darren offered to help at the pantry, and quickly became their most valuable volunteer.

I started volunteering and then the pastor gave me a job working at the church and with the food pantry,” Darren says. “Next thing you know I was running it.”

Darren’s work at the pantry brought him to the Foodbank, where he picked up food donations for families in need. Back then, the Foodbank was located at 5959 St. Louis Avenue, in a small warehouse.

I used to pick up food and take it back to our site and give it out to clients,” Darren says. “I walked in the Foodbank one day, looked around and thought, ‘I want to work here.’”

Five years later, Darren was hired as a warehouse associate at the Foodbank. One of his earliest jobs was working hands on with our partner agencies, monitoring the food they picked up in the shopping area.

Over the last 12 years, Darren has served in many roles at the Foodbank, from donated inventory control coordinator to front desk coordinator. Agency volunteers he has worked with over the years are quick to comment on his friendly demeanor and knowledge about hunger relief.

In the last decade, Darren has seen countless changes in the Foodbank. The biggest perhaps, was the move to our current facility in Bridgeton.

“It has grown so large, compared to where it was. We’re feeding more people. I’m seeing more food go out the door,” Darren says. “I’m seeing more and more new clients coming in, so it has to be working.”

Nowadays, Darren is the facilities manager at the Foodbank. He is responsible for the entire 100,000 square foot building and the surrounding grounds.

His work keeps him involved in all the day-to-day operations at the Foodbank.

“The hardest part of my job is staying in my boundaries. I always want to be involved in every area of the organization,” Darren says.

One thing is certain, Darren and his staff make it possible for everyone here at the Foodbank to work harder to provide more food to families in need.

It’s a role he is proud of, and rightly so.

“Because I ran a food pantry, I’ve actually seen the people that we serve,” Darren says. “So when I see all this food going out the door I know that there are hungry people being served.”

Bethany Prange is the communications coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank



Darren Smith is the facilities manager at the St. Louis Area Foodbank

Through Her Own Loss & Struggle, She Helps Others Get By


Sandra Cain works to help others despite being in need herself / Photo by Bethany Prange

Sandra lost her mother and her husband in the span of just a few years.

While driving with a friend through the terrible snow storm of 1982, Sandra’s mother went missing. For a month, dozens of search parties turned up empty. Finally, a truck driver discovered her mother’s car accident in a frozen creek bed.

Just three years later, Sandra’s husband, David Cain, succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. He had been sick with the disease for several years, leaving Sandra to serve as his caretaker.

When her husband died, Sandra did her best to survive on his veteran benefits. She worked when she could, day-sitting with elderly citizens who were unable to care for themselves.

Before his death, Sandra and David had moved her mother’s trailer to a small piece of rural property on the outskirts of Washington County.

Sandra still lives in the 1974 single-wide. But as the years have passed, the trailer has needed upkeep that she could not afford. Now, she lives in only the portion of the trailer that is safe to occupy.

Sandra worked most of her life, and had managed a women’s clothing store in Centralia for more than a decade. But in later years, a back injury prevented her from finding full-time employment.

When she became eligible, Sandra filed for social security. But like many in her age group, she had little money left over for food. In 1990, she began going to the food pantry in her hometown of Centralia, Ill.

“I couldn’t make ends meet,” she says. “I don’t go all the time – only when I’m really low on money.”

Sandra receives food stamps, but sometimes even those aren’t enough to stretch her meager budget.

In January, she was relieved when her monthly social security payment increased from $694 to $719. But then in March, her food stamp allotment when down from $51 to $40, negating the increase.

“Everything else is going up,” Sandra says. “Food stamps are something that helps feed you to keep you alive.”

Sandra is fortunate to have a car, since her rural address would make it impossible for her to receive food assistance from the Irvington Food Pantry and other resources without transportation.

She admits though, she wouldn’t have the car, or much else, without help from her daughter, Tina, and the kindness of others in the community.

“A friend bought me a used car because he says I’m his chauffer and drive him everywhere,” she says with a smile.

When that car quit running, a close friend of her daughter’s donated her family’s extra car to Sandra.

“She said ‘Centralia’s Taxi Service has to have a car,’” Sandra says.

Sandra helps care for sick friends and provides friends and neighbors with rides to the doctor, the food pantry and government offices to pick up food stamps.

Sandra helps one neighbor who lives in a house with no heat or electricity. He carries in his water and cooks on a small gas stove, often with a flashlight.

Sandra says her friend rides a bicycle and doesn’t get food stamps because the nearest office is in Carlyle and he can’t get there.

“I’ve got it hard, but he has it harder,” Sandra says. “There’s so many more out there worse off than me.”

This story was told to St. Louis Area Foodbank Communications Coordinator Bethany Prange in March 2012. Some circumstances may have changed.

     Bethany Prange is the communications coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank


Housewarming for a Homeless Family

Transitional Housing Family

Homeless and veteran should not be in the same sentence.

These are the wise words of Trish Jenner, the St. Louis Area Foodbank’s volunteer coordinator.

Trish is absolutely right. No veteran should struggle with homelessness.

But in truth, no American should.

Unfortunately, we all know that homelessness does exist, for far too many individuals in this country.

The good news is that there are organizations working hard to put these mothers and fathers, sons and daughters into homes. Nonprofits like Almost Home, Habitat for Humanity, the Kathy Weinman Center and Humanitri do a great job of giving these individuals a home and a better future.

But here at the St. Louis Area Foodbank, we understand that if someone has been homeless, or living in a temporary shelter, he or she probably won’t have many belongings. They won’t have a closet full of clothes, much-needed toiletries, or a pantry full of food to stock their new home or apartment.

Even if individuals are not homeless, but have been living in the overcrowded homes of relatives or participating in a live-in treatment program, they often are not able to purchase the items they need to get a fresh start.

So while a new tenant being served by an organization like Places on Page or the Veterans Administration Medical Center should be able to rejoice in finally finding a good place to live, they still have to worry about buying the items they need to survive.

That’s where the Foodbank can help.

We offer the Transitional Housing Program, a one-time offering of food and household items that help families and individuals make the transition from a shelter or the streets to a new home.

The Transitional Housing Program is one of only two direct service programs operated by the Foodbank – the rural Food Fair Program is the other. We consider the THP a “direct service,” because we distribute food and other products to an individual or family in need for their use only.

And over time, we have come to realize just how important these items are to a family or individual trying to establish roots in a new home.

Occasionally, a client will come to the Foodbank with her agency caseworker to pick up her family’s THP food shipment. It is remarkable to see the joy on their faces when she realizes the “food basket” is a pallet full of a month’s worth of food and boxes of household necessities.

I believe, because of the tears I have witnessed at these times, that it may just be at this exact moment, that it really sinks in for such a client that she has acquired not just a home, but a home in which she will be able to feed her family.

That’s how we know that this program is making a difference.

Over the past 15 months, Julia Day, Places for People’s development director and master scrounger, has made many referrals for her new residents to the Foodbank’s Transitional Housing Program.

And she’s not alone.

We are ready at any time to send a shipment to the Veterans Administration Medical Center’s Clemmie Cunningham or Matt Vaporean, or the Veterans Administration Hope Recovery Center’s Joanne Joseph and her staff.

Local social service agencies served by this program include:

  • Almost Home
  • Habitat For Humanity
  • Humanitri
  • Kathy Weinman Center
  • Preferred Health Care
  • Queen of Peace Center (Catholic Charities Housing)
  • Salvation Army
  • St. Louis Crisis Nursery
  • St. Martha’s Hall (Catholic Charities Housing)
  • Veterans Administration Hope Recovery Center
  • Veterans Administration Medical Center

With the help of all these agencies, the Foodbank gets to play a small role in giving a fresh start to homeless veterans, families in shelters and individuals in a myriad of unfortunate situations. We are proud to do our part.


    Jim Eschen is the agency relations manager at the St. Louis Area Foodbank