Foodbanks—and the countless Americans they serve—are now the subject of daily news stories, as is the plight of millions of people who are seeking emergency food assistance across the country. As a result of workers losing their jobs or being furloughed due to stay-at-home orders and school closures, an estimated additional 17.1 million people may be experiencing food insecurity, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. This figure represents an increase of 46% over the nearly 35 million people who suffered from food insecurity before a public health crisis hit.
The St. Louis Area Foodbank, a Feeding America member food bank, is bolstering its efforts to get fresh food to the more than 500 agencies they serve throughout the bi-state region. The Foodbank wants to ensure these partner agencies have enough fresh food and non-perishable products to accommodate the large spike in food demand since mid-March. This week alone, the Foodbank will deliver nearly 800,000 pounds of food throughout its network.
A HISTORY OF FEEDING THE COMMUNITY
Ritenour Co-Care Pantry in Overland, Missouri, is just one of the agencies the Foodbank partners with to help feed those who struggle to put food on their tables. The pantry serves the residents of the Ritenour School District, which encompasses nine municipalities in north St. Louis County. The pantry, which was founded in 1980, typically provides food to approximately 2,000 people per month. Clients who meet an income requirement can access the pantry by appointment on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the first and third Saturday of each month. The St. Louis Area Foodbank delivers pallets of fresh produce, dairy, protein and non-perishables to the pantry twice a week. A core group of volunteers, mostly seniors, helps arrange the food on shelves and in coolers so that people who come to the pantry can choose their own food. The pantry also supplements Foodbank deliveries with purchases of food and non-perishable donations from churches and local businesses.
MANAGING THROUGH A PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS
The pantry has seen a surge in the amount of food needed to feed regular clients and to meet emergency food requests. The arrival of COVID-19 has also caused some major disruptions to the pantry’s normal distribution practices, hours and staffing. The pantry no longer requires appointments but an ID proving residency within the school district is still needed. In order to better meet demand, the pantry now is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Instead of clients shopping for groceries, a small group of volunteers in gloves and masks pre-fill grocery carts with a variety of foods while maintaining social distancing. When people arrive without appointments, volunteers ask for the number of people in the household and their ages. Kid-friendly food is available for those with children. Carts are rolled outside to the client who then loads it into his or her vehicle.
Since April 1, the pantry has been feeding on average 49 families (about 170 people) each day they are open—many of them walk-ins. One morning in April the pantry fed 80 families—the highest single-day number to date. For the first twenty days of April, a total of 658 families (nearly 1,700 people) received food from the pantry. They expect to double these numbers by the end of the month.
On Tuesday, April 21, a line of loaded grocery carts awaits the 23 families scheduled to pick-up that day. A separate group of carts are filled and ready for those who drop in for emergency food assistance. The offerings included fresh fruits, chicken and fish, eggs, butter, cheese, lettuce, crackers, canned goods, breads, soft drinks and water, enough staples to feed a family for a week to 10 days. Families also received a cake or another type of dessert.
Those showing up for appointments on Tuesday included segments of our population most at-risk for food insecurity before the pandemic, seniors, low-income workers and those with permanent disabilities.
FACES OF HUNGER: OVERLAND, MO
Walk-ins that day included Paul, a 30-year old laid–off construction worker. Paul, who lost his job four weeks ago, is coming to the pantry for the very first time. His girlfriend, a cosmetologist, is furloughed from her job. They have filed for unemployment but have yet to start receiving benefits. Paul said the couple is lucky they didn’t have to pay April rent because his former boss owns their building. However, the couple’s savings are quickly running out because of other bills they must pay. Without the food they received today, Paul said that he and his girlfriend would be forced to go without meals until they start receiving unemployment.
Lisa and Pamela, two aids from a nearby nursing home, stopped at the pantry to request emergency food. The women said they find it nearly impossible to go grocery shopping because of the long hours they must work. Lisa, who has a disabled daughter and a granddaughter at home, finds it difficult to feed a family of three on her hourly wages. She said that between the stress of her job due to the coronavirus, she is afraid to go to out shopping. Both women expressed gratitude for the groceries they received from the pantry, which will feed their families this week.
DONORS AND VOLUNTEERS SAVE THE DAY
John Minard has been Executive Director of Ritenour Co-Care since 2017. He is extremely grateful to the generous donors who have made larger-than-normal cash donations to help meet the challenges the pantry has been facing since stay-at-home orders went into effect. Minard has been using the influx of cash donations to buy food at Sam’s and Costco to supplement the pantry’s supplies during the crisis. Local churches are collecting non-perishables for the pantry as well. Even some regular pantry clients are giving back during this crisis, including offering small donations of food and cash. One client even used his stimulus check to buy food for the pantry.
Minard also is grateful to the St. Louis Area Foodbank for providing additional food for the pantry whenever he requests it. The pantry is relocating to a larger location in Overland next week—a move they had hoped to make earlier this year. In its new home, the pantry will be able to store larger quantities of food. They also plan to institute a mobile distribution to keep clients and volunteers safe during the pandemic.
Operations Manager, Linda Hale, credits the small band of six regular volunteers who show up each day for helping to keep the pantry open when so many others closed in early to mid-March. “People think of essential workers as doctors and nurses. As far as I am concerned, my volunteers are essential workers,” she said, adding, “The pantry wouldn’t run without the volunteers. They give their hearts and souls to this place.”
For more information regarding the Ritenour Co-Care Pantry, visit https://www.rccfoodpantry.org/
To learn more about how the St. Louis Area Foodbank is assisting food pantries like Ritenour Co-Care during the COVID-19 crisis, and how you can help, visit https://stlfoodbank.org/