Every year around this time, Foodbank employees gather in our main warehouse for a little bit of fun that benefits an important cause – the United Way of Greater St. Louis.
The St. Louis Area Foodbank is a proud member agency of the United Way. We’re just one of more than 170 area agencies that receive funding from the United Way. Those funds are used to further our mission of feeding hungry people throughout the bi-state region.
At our employee United Way rally we remind our fellow staff members that when they support the United Way, they’re not only supporting the work that we do here at the Foodbank, but they are helping the entire community.
Our United Way rally planning committee, headed by our Food Drive Coordinator Casey Milton, always ensures that we’re not just raising funds, but also employees’ spirits.
Casey always comes up with a theme for the day. Rally committee members usually end up dressing in some sort of costume based around the theme and this year was no exception.
Our 2013 theme was The County Fair. There was a ring toss game, a pie-eating contest, hot dogs, hay bales, funnel cakes and much more.
There was even a dunking booth. Weeks prior to the rally, employees could vote (for $1 each) for who they wanted to see in the dunking booth. The top two vote-getters (our President & CEO, Frank Finnegan, and our Inventory Control Manger, Tim Jackson) each spent 15 minutes praying that their fellow employees had bad aim.
Employees could purchase tickets to participate in various games throughout the day for the chance to win some really great prizes. The totals are still being calculated, but it looks like we’re on pace to exceed last year’s fundraising totals. The more we raise through the rally and payroll deductions, the more people in our community get helped.
We might as well have some fun while we’re doing it.
My Grandparents at their 50th Wedding anniversary, along my Mom ( left), Aunt (middle) and myself (right).
Why I wanted to work at the St. Louis Area Foodbank…
The short answer is that I wanted to help put food on the tables of people who needed it the most.
But longer answer – please indulge me here – starts with my Papa’s Mac and Cheese.
I know, I know. You’re thinking “what does your grandpa’s pasta dish have to do with the Foodbank?”
Well, a lot, actually. Like most family recipes, Papa’s Mac and Cheese is more than food, it’s a piece of edible history. Whenever Papa makes his now-legendary macaroni and cheese, he will inevitably tell the story of how his signature dish came to be.
He usually laughs and rhetorically asks if we know what government cheese is. My sisters and I always shake our heads and reply, “no.”
This prompts him to stretch out his hands, as though he is talking about a prized catch. He then tells us that “government cheese” was a huge mystery block of cheese that the government used to give out, along with other food, to families on welfare.
It’s hard to image my grandparents on welfare; they are both hard-working, smart, and well-educated people. Papa was a computer programmer before becoming a nurse. Nana was a nurse, and in her 40s, she went to law school and received her law degree.
But long before my time, the recession of the early 1970s had caused financial burdens in their household. When Papa was laid off from his job, they had no choice but to ask for help to feed their seven kids.
Papa and Nana first sought help from their family, and later from the government and food pantries, much like the ones who partner with the St. Louis Area Foodbank.
During this time, Nana went back to work full time as a nurse, and the household duties fell to Papa as he attended nursing school. Taking care of seven kids is no easy task, and having to feed all of them on a tight budget was a huge challenge for Papa.
He had always dabbled in the kitchen, but he had his work cut out for him to get seven kids to try some of the new foods that came from the pantries and the government.
First and foremost, he had to figure out what to do with that huge block of cheese they were given on a monthly basis.
If you Google “government cheese”, the description may make it hard to believe Papa could ever have turned it into anything edible. But somehow, just by adding a little spice and baking it with a bread-crumb crust, he turned this “cheese” into something special that would feed our family for a lifetime.
Over the years, Papa told this story to me, my sisters, our spouses and their families, as well many of our friends.
Today, Papa’s Mac and Cheese still fills our bellies, and the story he tells his helps lift the stigma of food assistance in our culture by putting a face on it.
As I have gone out to talk to some of our food pantry clients, I have discovered that many of the families are like mine. They are hard-working people who are trying to provide for their kids, just like my grandparents.
Many of these people are just like Papa, who distributed food from the pantry to homebound elderly in his neighborhood, giving back the only way he could by volunteering at the food pantry. Like so many of the Foodbank’s clients, Papa felt he couldn’t just take something without giving back.
Food assistance has made a great impact on my life even though I have never received it myself. For me, working at the Foodbank is my way of giving back, just like my Papa.
Allison Jones is the web and design coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.
Denise Daugherty starts her day by loading product onto her truck / Photo by Bethany Prange
Denise Daugherty is a hard-working woman.
As the only woman on the otherwise all-male crew of truck drivers at the St. Louis Area Foodbank, her mornings start with a healthy dose of hot weather and heavy lifting.
Before she can settle into her air-conditioned truck, Denise must first prep and load hundreds of pounds of food. She will later deliver that food to food pantries throughout Missouri who will make sure it gets into the hands of those who need it most.
On July 6, a particularly steamy day in Missouri, I rode along with Denise as she made her deliveries. From the very first stop at First Assemblies of God food pantry in St. Clair, Mo., it was clear that Denise is a woman on a mission.
Denise greeted the volunteers at the pantry with friendly conversation before she jumped up to unload the food. Despite the sweltering heat, she worked quickly to help move the bread, meat and other food into the pantry. The volunteers were more than grateful for both the delivery, and Denise’s help.
As she drove along to the next stop – Meramec Community Mission in Sullivan, Mo. – Denise talked about how important her work is. She also acknowledged that since federal commodities have declined, so has the amount of food she is given to deliver to agencies.
“It just isn’t enough to feed them,” Denise worries.
When asked what she likes most about her job, Denise quickly says several things – helping people in need, working with Foodbank staff, and driving her truck.
Without Denise and the rest of the Foodbank drivers, many of our partner agencies would have limited access to the food they need. Today, more than 60 percent of our agencies have their food delivered while the rest choose to come to the Foodbank to pick it up themselves. In addition, the Foodbank drivers often pick up food donations from stores like Walmart and Save-A-Lot.
In just one day, Denise managed to not just deliver food to families in need, but also bring more food to the Foodbank to be distributed later.
With a remarkable combination of hard work and positive attitude, Denise and her fellow drivers make the work we do here possible.
Bethany Prange is the communications coordinator at the St. Louis Area Foodbank
Ben Spirk sorts donations at the South County post office during the Stamp Out Hunger food drive / Photo by Bethany Prange
What do you get when you mix a numbers nerd with a strong passion to help feed those in need?
That’s right. You get me – the vice president of finance at the St. Louis Area Foodbank.
Most kids grow up thinking they’re going to be an astronaut or the president of the United States. But me, I dreamed of a job where I could help people.
In grade school, I gathered some friends, and spent about a month organizing a haunted forest in the woods behind my house. We successfully sold tickets and concessions during the one night event. We also collected can goods in return for discounted tickets.
I was ecstatic when I realized we had collected two large boxes of can goods and $200!
My friends and I donated the can goods to Feed My People (one of the 500 food pantries served by the St. Louis Area Foodbank) and gave the money to a recent widow in the neighborhood who had lost her husband to cancer.
I know that charitable effort is relatively small in the grand scheme of things, but it helped me turn into the person I am today. I went on to participate in Scouting for Food with my boy scout troop, and enjoyed preparing meals for the homeless with my church.
But as I dreamed of a future where I could help others every day, I ran into a problem. I wondered how I could make a living by simply helping people.
In school, I whizzed through algebra, statistics, and even calculus. At last, I made the connection – I could use my given talent for numbers to do accounting for nonprofits!
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and earned my Certified Public Accountant license. I began my career at a CPA firm where I most enjoyed helping charities reach their financial goals, and in turn, further their missions.
After auditing in public accounting for about six years, I finally found the perfect opportunity.
When I heard there was an opening for the vice president of finance at the Foodbank, I knew it would be a perfect fit. After about a year and a half on the job, I know I made the right career move.
Through budgeting, forecasting, and overall financial analysis, I help the Foodbank remain one of the most efficient topnotch charities in the region.
It turns out my mad math skills CAN be a huge asset to the mission of feeding people in need! I’m grateful every day that I can help make a difference in the lives of hungry families.
Ben Spirk is the Vice President of Finance at the St. Louis Area Foodbank
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:
Habitat For Humanity
Kathy Weinman Center
Preferred Health Care
Queen of Peace Center (Catholic Charities Housing)
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
Chris “Bo” Bovance pulls product in the St. Louis Area Foodbank’s warehouse / Photo by Bethany Prange
It’s a behind-the-scenes gig that comes with little fanfare, but huge purpose.
From a distance, it looks like any other warehouse job, in any other organization.
In fact, the job requires the usual skills – driving a forklift, stacking boxes and organizing goods.
But Chris “Bo” Bovance will tell you that this job at St. Louis Area Foodbank is different from other warehouse jobs.
Here, “the harder we work the more agencies are able to provide more food,” Bo says. “The harder we work the more people we are helping.”
In his first six months as a warehouse associate here, Bo spent most of his time inside the Foodbank.
As donated items come in from retail stores such as Sam’s Club, Walmart and Target, he and his fellow warehouse associates sort and weigh each pallet of food.
The St. Louis Area Foodbank warehouse team has major responsibilities. They are the ones in charge of making sure that the perishables and meat are put into refrigeration or the freezer, to ensure they last as long as possible.
They are also responsible for tracking every pound of food that enters the Foodbank warehouse, ensuring that each store, food drive or individual is credited for their donation.
Bo and the rest of the warehouse team also select and stage the orders placed by the Foodbank’s 500 partner agencies.
“Here we give the food to the agencies then the agencies give the food directly to the people who need it,” Bo says.
But then two weeks ago, Bo got his first chance to be there in person as clients received food from the Foodbank.
He attended a Foodbank Food Fair in Farmington, Mo., and helped distribute more than 20,000 pounds of food to roughly 170 families in need.
“I was able to put a face with the people who are receiving food. I was able to see that the people really are needing it.” Bo said. “It’s getting to the people who need it.”
Bo helped unload the Foodbank trucks, and load the clients’ cars with food. He said it was rewarding to work with the food pantry volunteers in person and observe how they work with the clients.
“Everything was handled professionally,” he said. “The teams who were out there were handling it very well. To me it was a success.”
Chris “Bo” Bovance is a warehouse associate at the St. Louis Area Foodbank. He is expecting his first child this summer.
This photo demonstrates one of the many differences between the St. Louis Area Foodbank, a 92,000 square foot warehouse and a food pantry as picture in the inset (photo of Matthew 25 Food Pantry) / Photos by Bethany Prange
“How many people does the Foodbank serve each week at your facility?”
It’s a question that everyone asks when touring the St. Louis Area Foodbank.
The quick and literal answer would be a startling zero. But dig a little deeper, and the number jumps up to 57,100.
That ridiculous discrepancy will make complete sense by the end of this post.
When I think about how to best describe the relationship between the St. Louis Area Foodbank and a food pantry, I reflect on something I learned back in one of my high school science classes.
Food banks and food pantries are very similar, but also very different. That fact reminds me of symbiosis. (Here comes the nerd alert.)
Symbiosis is the relationship between two organisms that live in intimate contact with each other. In reference to the Foodbank and food pantries, I’m thinking of mutualism – where both organisms benefit from the symbiotic relationship because they rely on each other for survival.
In this symbiotic relationship, the Foodbank is definitely the bigger of the two organisms, but we still rely on the smaller organism (the food pantries) to achieve our goals.
In non-science nerd terms, the St. Louis Area Foodbank is a distributor. We collect and store 25 million pounds of food a year, then distribute it out to the smaller food pantries, who in turn, hand it out to families in need.
When I said earlier that the Foodbank serves zero individuals a week from our facility, that’s literally true, because we don’t serve clients directly from our location.
We’re a 94,000-square-foot warehouse space out in Bridgeton, Mo. If we tried to feed 57,100 people a week all from this one location, we’d have mayhem on our hands.
Therefore, if you had a situation, or situations, in your life that caused you to need food assistance, you would not come to the Foodbank’s Bridgeton warehouse. You would most likely visit a food pantry in your community.
A food pantry acts as the front line in the war on hunger. According to Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” study, 514,600 people living in the bi-state region are in need of food assistance. The pantries take product that they receive from the Foodbank and other sources and then distribute it out to those in need.
The majority of food pantries are run by the people in your community that want to help other people out of the goodness of their hearts.
According to the 2010 Hunger in America Study, commissioned by Feeding America, 55 percent of the pantries that get product from the Foodbank operate with no paid staff.
To put that in relative terms, think about your favorite restaurant. Now imagine that you are running that restaurant. On a busy Friday night, 200 hungry people show up to your restaurant wanting to eat. In that crowd of 200 people there are all types – the grateful, the rude and everything in between.
All these people need to be taken care of…but you and your entire staff run this restaurant as volunteers. Your customers need to be served, but you’ve been so busy working your paying job that you haven’t had time to go out and find food to feed them.
That’s where the Foodbank comes in.
The St. Louis Area Foodbank uses its resources, space and staff to bring food into the region and then distribute it out to those directly serving those in need.
The sheer volume of the food required is astounding. Most visitors to our facility are shocked by the size of our warehouse space, because until you’ve seen rows and rows of canned corn, apple juice and breakfast cereal (along with hundreds of other items), you probably don’t recognize the magnitude of the problem.
Until you’ve seen two million pounds of food that will be out the door within weeks of getting it in, you can’t really understand how big the issue of hunger has become.
We get food in from a number of different sources, including the USDA, local and national manufacturers, farmers, local retail stores, and community food drives. Then we distribute the food to our partner agencies, the majority of which are food pantries.
The Foodbank needs the pantries to distribute the food to those in need directly from their facilities, while treating clients with the respect they deserve. The food pantries need the Foodbank to go out and find the food and bring it into the bi-state region.
One could not operate successfully without the other. The true definition of a symbiotic relationship.
The difference between the St. Louis Area Foodbank and a food pantry isn’t rocket science, it’s just high school biology.
Ryan Farmer is the communications manager at the St. Louis Area Foodbank
I can’t say I’ve ever done much blogging, or ever even given it much thought. But it occurred to me recently that a blog can be a great way to share our organization’s story. And stories we have.
Five days a week, volunteers fill our Volunteer Center, each with their own unique perspective on fighting hunger in our community. At more than 500 partner agencies across 26 counties, staff and volunteers endure the triumphs and struggles of handing out food to those in need. And in the homes of 57,100 individuals each week, families rely on that food to survive.
All of these people have stories to tell. This blog is the place to share them – a window into our Foodbank and the work we do here every day. From serious posts about legislation affecting hunger in the U.S., to funny videos of our staff, we will endeavor to entertain and educate you at the same time.
I hope you will come back here each week to read, engage and learn. We welcome your opinions and ideas, and hope you will tell us what you enjoy and what you don’t about this blog.
Thanks for reading,
Frank Finnegan is the President & CEO of the St. Louis Area Foodbank